Updated: Feb 6, 2020
Choice is a significant part of being alive. We have the ability to choose in nearly everything that we do. But for those born into a specific way of life, their options seem far more limited. This is made especially complicated if their way of life is defined by their faith. That conflict between how you live and how you feel is explored in Disobedience (adapted from the 2006 novel by Naomi Alderman), a drama set in an Orthodox Jewish community in London.
The film is about Ronit (Rachel Weisz), who returns to the isolated area where she was raised after the death of her father, the community’s leader. Many years before, she had fled to New York City to become a photographer. Her homecoming is not exactly welcome. However, her old friend Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), her late father’s favorite student, invites her to stay with him and his wife, Esti (Rachel McAdams), while she is in town. This causes long simmering emotions to come to the forefront because Ronit’s relationship with Esti is what led to her leaving.
Disobedience (109 minutes, minus the end credits) could have veered wildly toward soap opera, but it is kept centered by the performances. The world that the film shows is one of control and tradition. These people live like this because they believe it is the right way to live. Ronit disagrees. Having existed outside of this culture for so long, it is difficult for her to readjust. Weisz plays her with a barely concealed resentment. If this story was being settled on Ronit’s terms, the emotions may have ended up all out in the open. But that is not how it works there. Weisz displays all of this on her face.
The more challenging role goes to McAdams, who has to be subtle in showing her dissatisfaction. Esti has grown into a routine in her marriage to Dovid. Ronit’s reappearance shakes her out of her complacency and forces her to take a closer look at herself. McAdams keeps Esti’s feelings bottled up except in small gestures or understated expressions. She understands how important doing what is expected of her is for her husband’s place in the community. When she finally does let it out, it is a powerful moment, handled well.
One thing I wondered while watching Disobedience is how realistic it is about the way things operate inside these insulated societies where people’s lives are structured around religious doctrine. Much of this story is focused on how these women have been disempowered. They are judged based upon how well they take care of their husband and children. There are moments when Ronit reacts to her old friends and neighbors as if they belong to a cult that she has deprogrammed herself from. Disobedience certainly seems to share her viewpoint that the women in Orthodox Jewish communities (or maybe just this one) are not allowed the freedoms they should be entitled to.
Or maybe that is not what it is saying at all. Maybe it is just a movie about forbidden love with the religious stuff there to add texture. It is definitely not meant to be a documentary-like look at the life and customs inside an Orthodox Jewish community like last year’s Menashe. That film mixed fiction in with the reality of some of its actors. Disobedience feels closer to fiction with a couple splashes of reality. Whether realistic or pure fantasy, it is a well-acted, entertaining, adult drama with interesting themes.
Disobedience starts with what could have been an exploitative story and tells it with a decent amount of restraint. Since it takes place in a world rarely seen on the big-screen, it feels a bit like a missed opportunity to not delve deeper into the customs and day-to-day routines of this lifestyle. But that would be a different movie. Besides, this one is still pretty good.
3½ out of 5
Rachel Weisz as Ronit Krushka
Rachel McAdams as Esti Kuperman
Alessandro Nivola as Dovid Kuperman
Directed by Sebastián Lelio
Screenplay by Sebastián Lelio and Rebecca Lenkiewicz