Directed by Sebastián Lelio
Starring: Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams, Alessandro Nivola
Rated R for some strong sexuality
1 hr. 54 mins.
It’s rare during the summer season to catch a movie as touching and beautiful as Disobedience. Perhaps the timing of its release was a happy accident.
Whatever the reasons, Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Lelio, who won a Best Foreign Language Academy Award this year for his film A Fantastic Woman, has captured a snippet of what it’s like to deal with tradition, faith and sexuality. While it has a Jewish context, this story could be told in any religious setting, particularly since homosexuality is still a topic that most people of faith would rather avoid altogether.
Rav Krushka (Anton Lesser) is a London rabbi of some note in his Orthodox Jewish community. One evening, as he presents a homily on the connection between God’s will, creation and the nature of human choice, he collapses in the pulpit and dies.
His daughter Ronit (Rachel Weisz) is a photographer who has left her Jewish religion and community in London to pursue an artist’s life in New York City. From a faith perspective, one would probably call her a nonpracticing bohemian.
When she learns of her father’s death, she returns to London for the funeral. The reception she receives from her friends and family is not warm. She is considered disrespectful and disloyal for having avoided contact with her father in his final years.
Even more surprising, she learns that her former best friend, Esti (Rachel McAdams), has married her other good friend, Rabbi Dovid Kuperman (Alessandro Nivola).
Why has Ronit left everyone and gone into hiding? As we learn, there is a long-held love between her and Esti, a forbidden love. Now that she has returned, this same passion is reignited and the consequences for the three friends begin to ripple throughout the community. Gossip shared. Blame cast. A promising rabbinic career in doubt.
Director Lelio and fellow screenwriter Rebecca Lenkiewicz have approached this film from many different perspectives. It’s as if they’re presenting the Jewish arguments for faith and conjugal faithfulness and the humanistic arguments for freedom. With dignity and subtlety they draw out the many Jewish assumptions that Ronit must process in order to attend her father’s funeral; and Ronit, as they say, is not a people person.
As the relationship between Ronit and Esti escalates, their lives engage and conflict in ways that are nuanced but powerful. Each must make decisions that affect the other, and both of them know that there’s more than one level of truth in their lives.
The writers ask the age-old questions: Do we get to have both faith and freedom? In what sense do obligations and vows enrich and imprison us with lives that bear the goodness of faith and the pain of human desire?
In the context of Disobedience, there is an additional level of human behavior: homosexuality. The question of its legitimacy will be a point of discussion as the filmmakers present their story. And in the end, the decision that Esti makes will surprise you.
There are fine performances all around: Weisz as the troubled Ronit, McAdams in perhaps one of her best roles to date as a good woman with a split mind and Nivola as the rabbi and husband who wants to keep faith and love intact in his house.
This is not just a film for Jewish audiences. This is a film for all who have struggled in some sense to integrate their faith with their sexuality. It is quiet in manner but bold in its presentation, and not without controversy about some of its conclusions.
One thing is clear: Disobedience has stepped into one of the prickliest subjects you can discuss in a faith context and presented a story that is authentic and thought-provoking. Argue with its premise or its conclusions, but see it for its beauty and willingness to go boldly where most filmmakers would hardly tread.