By now you’ve probably seen the trailer for Disobedience, in which Rachel McAdams’ and Rachel Weisz’ smoldering eyes flash significant looks, a baffled husband buries his head in the Torah, and the moment that left us all shook, when Weisz slides off McAdams’ sheitel. I, like many others, assumed (and worried) Disobedience, the new film by Sebastián Lelio, was Carol but with Jews. Or perhaps worse, what folks at Cannes were calling it, Jew Is the Warmest Color. Not so. Nor is it The Hours or The Handmaiden, although it is the familiar story of a woman married to a man but harboring an unruly desire for a woman.
The movie is also in familiar territory as it explores, through the lens of sexual awakening, the tension between individual expression and wanting to belong to a community. Also on the Gay Themes Bingo card is the delayed-adolescent rebellion of someone who is denied sexual expression when she’s an actual teenager.
I expected cliches from Disobedience, and I would have watched it anyway, because I’m always here for juicy, three-dimensional, Bechdel-test-passing roles for women. (Actually, let’s get real. If I watched Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams on QVC hawking rotisserie ovens that double as dishwashers, I’d tell the world how it was breathtaking and Oscar-worthy.)
Instead of cliches, I was treated to strong characters and a story that’s much more than romance, although the romance is honest and beautiful in a way that left me ruminating for days about whether there is a person for whom it’s worth upending your life (and is that person you?).
But let me give you some synopsis. Ronit, played by Rachel Weisz, is called home to London when her father, the charismatic and exalted Rav of the Orthodox community from which Ronit was exiled, dies. She goes to the house of her childhood best friend Dovid, who was the Rav’s protege, played by Alessandro Novaro, who is sporting a rather good British accent. She immediately runs into her other childhood best friend, Esti, played by Rachel McAdams, who is sporting a rather unflattering wig because OH SHIT Esti and Dovid married each other. The match knocks the wind out of Ronit, whose decades-long exile was kicked off after her father caught her and Esti in flagrante when they were teenagers. We watch these three friends pick at very old scars, working out the wounds of their relationships with each other and the patriarch. The Rav, though he is dead, is present in every scene.
When first introduced to the three main characters, the visual language of the film gives you the idea that you know them, you’ve seen them before. But over the course of the film, the characters make somewhat shocking choices about how to be seen and by whom, when to bend to authority or convention and when to rebel. They tolerate a lot from each other, until they don’t, and that moving goalpost is interesting to witness, since the outsider perspective of orthodoxy (whether Jewish, Christian, even feminist) is that conformity is and must be rigorously policed at all times.
Perhaps the most likely to have you whispering “holy shit” at the screen was Esti, who seems meek, plied as she was into a marriage at the behest of the Rav. She’s not meek. She’s selective about her rebellion, and the longer she plays straight, the more she has to lose. Then there is Dovid’s character, who is more of a surprise not for who he is, but how he was written: he is not merely an antagonist or a symbol of all that stands in the way of Esti’s happiness. We are not looking at a love triangle so much as the shape-shifting love of lifelong friends. Friends that know you for who you are, even when you reinvent yourself.
After winning an Academy Award for A Fantastic Woman, Sebastián Lelio said, “I think there’s no such thing as illegitimate people.” While I don’t think he was referring to religious sects when he said this to the press, the impression I get from the film is that Lelio believes this is true in the sense of the individual person as well as communities. Insular groups like Orthodox Jews have chosen when to keep to tradition and when and how much to integrate with secular society. That’s hard for a lot of outsiders to grasp, since for better or worse, our culture teaches us that nothing is more important than the individual and the individual’s self-expression. But whether your community is Orthodox Jews, Evangelical Christians, your gay a capella group, whatever, it can be risky and alienating to step out of line from the prevailing ideas or behavior. We punish each other to protect the family.
Is obedience always a teeter-totter? For how long can a person obey convention and disobey the body? The film does a good job at exploring this question without scapegoating the Orthodox community. That’d be the easy narrative route for Lelio to take, considering there is much to criticize about orthodoxy in general. It was fucked up for this community to exile a teenage Ronit, to threaten an adult Esti, to let the charismatic leadership of the Rav so heavily influence individual lives without push-back. But the film shows that there remains in each character an individual will.
While social pressure, groupthink, and the reality of economic instability can all make you feel locked into a social dynamic, in most cases of family and community, it is up to you to stay or go. You have to believe that there is life beyond. This is the message I got anyway, which meant so much to me as someone who grew up and moved on from Christian Fundamentalism. Recovering from living in a dynamic like that, it’s easy to become all or nothing about who was good and who was bad, who had all the power and who had none. It was a cathartic experience for me to see a story that preserved the humanity even of the antagonists.
The film also asks rich questions about the nature of the divine and faith.
There’s a bit where Rabbi Dovid is doing a close reading of Song of Songs with a group of teenage boys. Dovid starts to wax poetic about sex between man and wife. For him, the Talmudic poem is about how desire and passion transcend the physical plane, becoming something sacred, something that invites the Divine to get tangled up in our human bodies. His students are less than convinced — it sounds archaic and inauthentic. This moment of dramatic irony is poignant since we know that his wife could not possibly feel the same sense of the sacred or divine when they have obligatory Shabbat-eve sex.
Later, Esti and Ronit say fuck it to the whole damn neighborhood, hop on a train and blend in among the normies. The inevitable result is the sex scene of sex scenes, a vision of eros that’s definitely gonna go down in the cultural archives of herstory. The intimacy between Esti and Ronit is an unmasking, a desire to strip away the self-protecting and reveal what is most vulnerable. This is the way we are humbled before the Divine, whether you worship God, Diana, Source, or whatever. This is the way we kneel in church.
Have you ever fucked a woman with such passion and intensity you felt the universe expand, you felt the relativity of time, you felt your ego explode and be replaced by eternality? The feeling that you now know everything and are at the same time naive and new-born? Have you ever fucked a woman and thought So this is who I am. If so, you’ll recognize yourself in Esti’s face.
I have to admit I reserved judgments about a movie about lesbian Jews directed by a gentile dude. I’m sure there will be some hot takes following the release about where it went wrong in its identity politics from people who know a lot more about these cultures than I. Objectification of women, fetishizing of minority cultures, this is what we’ve come to expect from Hollywood (although that is clearly shifting, perhaps more so in the last year than ever before). Not for nothing, but Rachel Weisz was searching to produce and star in a movie with more than one dynamic, rich, three-dimensional female lead role. Powerful women are at the heart of this movie, from the original novel, to the screenwriting, to the actors, to the editing. And that is the shift.
Disobedience has a very indie-moving ending. Loose ends are left (infuriatingly) untied. Lelio has said, “I believe that cinema exists to be seen. It happens within the spectator’s head or heart, it doesn’t happen on the screen.” I’m still thinking, worrying even, about Ronit, Esti, Dovid, and the fucking Rav, a week after I saw it.
The film opens for limited release April 27th. Read my exclusive interview with Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams HERE.