Movie Review: The Lesbian Heat and Narrative Pitfalls of “Disobedience”

In the opening scene of “Disobedience,” a wizened rabbi collapses mid-sermon. His throng hangs on every word, and the wail of a shofar seems to trumpet his transition from this world to the next. But not before he tidily lays out the themes this uneven adaptation of a provocative novel will probe over the next couple of hours. His final and incomplete address is about the power to disobey with which God endowed human beings—the privileges and burdens associated with free will.

These sentiments hang like invisible nuclear fallout over the actions of the rabbi’s tight-knit London Orthodox community, pulsating from the three characters at the narrative’s center. The most zealous among them is Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), adopted by the rabbi as a child and raised in reverent orthodoxy: He is described, at one point, as the rabbi’s “closest disciple, spiritual son and successor.” He’s betrothed to Esti (Rachel McAdams), who grew up with Dovid and knows little about the outside world. Theirs is a marriage, for Esti at least, of convenience and necessity.

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Then there’s Ronit (Rachel Weisz), the disrupter, the apostate, the rabbi’s prodigal daughter. A photographer in New York, she lives like a nihilist—bathroom sex with disposable men is commonplace—and had been estranged from her father for years (decades?). Yet she shows up to his shiva, apparently uninvited.

Blood connection aside, Ronit is an interloper among the judgmental faithful, and some of the best scenes in “Disobedience” crystallize the cultural chasm between her upbringing and her disavowal of it, and between tribal customs and modern feminism. The first Shabbat dinner after her father’s passing soon turns ugly, with the family lashing out at Ronit’s childless spinsterdom, and Ronit insulting their desire to fruitfully multiply at the cost of female selfhood. Esti, notably, seems to take Ronit’s side, at least tentatively; she’s caught between these polarities, and it becomes apparent that her journey is the film’s most interesting one.

It turns out Ronit and Esti had a romantic history as children, one that will soon be rekindled. This is hardly a spoiler; the marketing of “Disobedience” milks the characters’ lesbian relationship for all it’s worth: Their forbidden attraction is all over the trailer and the poster, designed as much to titillate straight males as engage questions about control, identity and self-actualization in a repressive religious culture.

It turns out there’s nothing wrong with the six-minute sex scene that has earned the film more attention that it would otherwise receive. Director Sebastian Lelio, fresh off his Oscar accolades for “A Fantastic Woman,” manages to channel a female gaze. The sight of Ronit erotically removing Esti’s mandated modesty wig speaks symbolic volumes, and the ladies’ unusual bit of bedroom behavior—you’ll know it when you see it—is one of the most intimate expressions of carnal love I’ve ever seen depicted. It’s as beastly as it is human.

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But the movie stumbles in the fallout—the comedown—from this pivotal moment. What had been a hushed, Bergmanesque chamber drama of simmering tension succumbs to narrative expediency. Lelio maintains a strong camera eye, artfully obscuring his characters behind blurred windows and claustrophobically framing them under low, slanted roofs. But the actions of his screenplay, co-written with Rebecca Lenkiewicz, fail to match the atmospheric intensity of his visuals.

“Disobedience” is an important film offering a vital peak into an underexplored community. But I didn’t buy the last quarter of its story one bit, despite the commitment of the actors selling it. Perhaps the book, by Naomi Alderman, better conveys certain internal decisions required for characters to transform their worldviews seemingly overnight. Onscreen, though, by yielding to closure rather than standing firm on ambiguity, Lelio undercuts his movie’s cultivated authenticity.

“Disobedience” opens today at Living Room Theaters and Regal Shadowood in Boca Raton, Movies of Delray, Movies of Lake Worth, and Downtown at the Gardens in Palm Beach Gardens.