Review: Disobedience Sheds Light on Compelling World

The indie drama Disobedience examines the Jewish faith and forbidden sexuality in an absorbing way, bolstered by great performances from its leads Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams and Alessandro Nivola.

I always appreciate a movie that shows me a world in which I am wholly unfamiliar and paints a realistic picture. In Disobedience, that world is a devout Jewish community in the suburbs of London. The story centers on Weisz’s Ronit, a successful New York photographer, who learns her rabbi father has died. As she returns home to pay her respects, we find out she’s been away for a very long time and had been estranged from her father for many years.

As we move deeper in, it’s discovered Ronit was actually shunned by her father and the community because she and her childhood friend, Esti (McAdams), shared an undeniable attraction that they acted on. They were eventually caught by Ronit’s father, and while she hightailed it out there, Esti stayed and tried to move on, marrying Ronit and Esti’s other childhood best friend, Dovid (Nivola).

Now, Dovid has followed Ronit’s father’s footsteps as a rabbi and is poised to take over those duties in the synagogue. Esti has found peace with her life as a rabbi’s wife and is devoted to her faith – until Ronit shows up. Then all those long-simmering passions bubble right back up again, and she and Ronit, er, reconnect. Esti eventually has to make the decision to either continue living a lie or embrace who she really is, but it’s not necessarily an ending you’d expect.

Director Sebastián Lelio is best known for helming the transgender film A Fantastic Woman, which just won the Best Foreign Language Oscar, and now with Disobedience, he explores another similar subject matter with lesbianism and the devout following of the Jewish faith. Lelio, who also co-adapted from the novel by Naomi Alderman, gives the film a very subdued look and feel. There’s very little sunlight in this London tableau, with both McAdams and Weisz characters also dim and somber. The tone brings you down a bit, but you’re also immersed in the world created.

The actresses do a fantastic job playing these women who have this passion between them. Weisz as Ronit definitely is more spirited and more worldly as she lived beyond this small-minded community, while McAdams steps way out of her usual comfort zone to play Esti as demure and muted but with a yearning to live her life as a free woman. Nivola portrays a nice balance between the two as the kind Dovid, who loves his wife dearly but his faith more. One of the last scenes in the movie, in which Dovid addresses the synagogue congregation truly showcases Nivola’s talents for subtlety and compassion.

While Disobedience moves deliberately and quietly, there is a moment of spark when Ronit and Esti sneak off to sleep together, which we get to see it all its glory. Personally, it almost took me right out of the movie when I was watching it (and sitting with my WLE colleague Scott Menzel, we both sort cringed). They do some strange things (things that certainly aren’t sexy to me) and there isn’t any kind of serious sexual energy between the two actresses. I’m all for a great sex scene if the two people involved look like they want to be there. Weisz and McAdams don’t. More importantly, the scene just doesn’t seem necessary if its point is to show the love between the two women. They had already established that connection, and it could have just been implied they had an afternoon delight, rather than show it.

Pushing that one scene aside, though, the rest of the movie does intrigue me, watching these people operate within these constraints — Ronit coming to terms with her upbringing and her father’s faith; Esti wanting to be free but still maintain her faith; and Dovid living his Jewish faith in body and soul. Disobedience is a classic and fascinating character study.

Written by
Kit Bowen has turned her extraordinary passion for all things entertainment into a long and varied career. For over 15 years, Kit has been an online entertainment journalist, reporter and film critic. On the whole, Kit just thinks of herself as a walking IMDb, is defined by how many times she's seen Jaws and will give you her theory on how Game of Thrones will end.

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