A Complicated Relationship
Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Lelio’s “Disobedience” is set in London’s Orthodox Jewish community and depicts the complicated relationship between two women born into this world, whose paths in life have deviated after an earlier affair. What makes this so brilliant a film is how Lelio manages to sidestep overly familiar discussions on sexuality and religious prejudice in order to examine the very nature of freewill when it comes to accepting a love frowned upon by a belief system. It’s a film that is equally romantic and philosophical and I am quite sure that “Disobedience” will be on many ten bests lists for 2018.
It has been adapted from Naomi Alderman’s controversial and gorgeous 2006 novel of the same name. It follows Ronit Kruschka (Rachel Weisz) the estranged daughter of a beloved rabbi who has long since fled to New York to pursue a career as a photographer. Upon hearing about the sudden death of her father, she returns to the London community where she grew up to pay her respects, and finds herself to be something of a ghost. While she is welcomed with open arms and shown kindness, yet her existence as her father’s only child has been eliminated from her father’s newspaper obituary, and a renewed social tension has emerged due to the nature of a previous affair with Esti Kuperman (Rachel McAdams).
Esti is now married to her father’s apprentice Rabbi, Dovid Kuperman (Alessandro Nivola) who lets her stay in their upper middle class home. Since they last saw each other, Esti has become a pillar of the local community and teaches English literature at a local girl’s school. The only thing setting her back from true happiness is that she is incapable of feeling physical attraction to men and knowing that confessing otherwise could jeopardize her devout faith. This becomes even more complicated when she slowly rekindles the relationship she had with Ronit year’s prior.
The film deals with the numerous factors in a person’s life that can stop them accepting their true identity and how that struggle intensifies following the death of a loved one. Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams perfectly communicate the frailty that comes with seeing a former flame following the aftermath of a sudden end to the relationship, and the separate anxieties the two share about the developing nature of their romance.
In the opening scene, a rabbi, Rav Kruschka (Anton Lesser), delivers a sermon at a North London synagogue about angels and beasts, free will, and choosing the tangled lives we live. His tone is doctrinaire, poisonous even, so it’s perhaps no surprise that the frail-looking man drops dead on the spot. Meanwhile in New York, his daughter, Ronit, is putting his words into action. She is a photographer and is in session when she receives a phone call one alerting her to her father’s death, after which she’s seen impassively skating around an ice rink, with a time-out for a random hookup with a man inside a bathroom stall.
We’ll learn why she turned her back on the Orthodox world she was born into yet her personhood will remain foreign to us. Everyone in “Disobedience” is representative and every scene is declarative. With the help of her old lover, Esti, Ronit goes to her father’s home to gather some belongings. Seeing an old radio, Ronit turns it on and we hear a song whose lyrics completely speak to the situation of the two women: “You make me feel like I am home again/Whenever I’m alone with you/You make me feel like I am whole again.”
It is here that Ronit and Esti find themselves alone for the first time in many years. They finally talk about their romantic past in a single long take, and it’s some kind of masterstroke how the tension of their reminiscences and flirtations in tune with the audience’s wondering when the shot will dare to cut away.
At first glance, Esti seems to be an obsequious adherent to orthodoxy. When she passionately kisses Dovid, we understand that this is compensatory and to show that the past with Ronit is indeed the past.. But then she plays with Dovid’s beard, and subtly communicates the sense of the genuine love that exits between this husband and wife—an impression that’s confirmed when Esti later repeats the gesture with Ronit. But theirs is a different kind of love, and we finally get a sense of what that is when the two women are alone and trysting in a hotel room and Ronit casually sends a stream of her saliva into Esti’s mouth.
Director Lelio understands that the community at the center of the film is rooted in old-school tradition, but as it’s physically rooted in a cultural capital of the world, no one here is a stranger to gays and lesbians, and so the reactions to Ronit and Esti’s rekindled love affair never rises to hysterics. Ronit is asked at one point why she isn’t married and response is understood as a matter of course. In fact, in the subtlest of glances exchanged between the women of this community, one senses a certain respect for Ronit having broken away from tradition to find her own path through life. Esti, on the other hand, may have the courage to admit to Ronit that she’s only attracted to women, but she isn’t so brave to stand by her when they’re caught kissing by some friends and her survival instinct kicks in and she bolts from the scene. The film is less about the subjugation of the self to the group than the courage to embrace uncertainty by breaking out of the world one has been born into. And the triumph of the film is the grace and gracefulness of the performances and style.
Repression is a major theme Esti and Ronit have always had a special relationship, and they rekindle a love that becomes more than just friendship. But, of course, this community, and Esti’s marital status, can never allow it.