The first sound we hear in Disobedience is the sharp, prolonged blaring of the shofar. In the Jewish religion it’s a call for people to pay attention, to wake up from a slumber of complacency and think about our relationship with God. Immediately the film places us in the middle of an Orthodox congregation, gazing up at the final sermon of a dying rabbi; we can see the rows of women in wigs and long, black skirts far above him, watching from the gender-segregated balcony. The oddness of the image — the faith leader in the foreground, his life draining as he speaks, his perspective dwarfed by the often out-of-focus women watching him from above — has the peculiar effect of inverting the ways we typically understand Orthodox power dynamics. In this moment, who is closer to God?
Based on a novel by Naomi Alderman, the film chronicles a forbidden romance between two women with ties to this London Orthodox community. Ronit (Rachel Weisz), the rabbi’s free-spirited daughter, left the religion years ago to make her way as a secular photographer in New York. Her return for the shiva following her father’s death is unwelcome, as the congregation, in retaliation for her exit, had deliberately neglected to inform her that he was ill. None have any business with Ronit except Esti (Rachel McAdams), her former lover, who stayed behind to adopt the frum lifestyle of the ultra-Orthodox, teach at the Jewish girls’ school and marry their mutual friend Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), the rabbi’s top disciple, for one night a week of joyless procreation attempts. In this way, Esti has resigned herself to “living a long life” — the blessing traditionally given to Jewish mourners, and here also a kiss-off to Ronit from all the family members who plan on never speaking to her again.
Disobedience rests on the strengths of its two Rachels, and Weisz and McAdams deliver on what they’re given. One of them isn’t given enough. Ronit is a lazy writer’s idea of a “strong female character,” meaning she gets one “yasss queen” outburst where she tells her family what she really thinks about their traditions … even though we know she’s already spurned them, so the scene is redundant. Otherwise she floats through the film dazed by grief, so all the heavy work falls to Weisz (who also produces) to let us read different forms of regret and confusion into her tender performance. One killer detail about the character, that her photography subjects are all covered in tattoos, hints at some unresolved reckoning with Judaism that never materializes.
The film truly belongs to McAdams, turning in career-high work as someone who has only just decided to wage open revolt against her faith. Even as Esti openly solicits Ronit’s love once more, she still prays of her own volition, still seeks some level of higher understanding and forgiveness. There are things wrestling inside of her, and we can see them in real time. Hence why, when the two women do sneak off to a hotel room together, they make the act of removing a wig more erotic than any kind of spittle that might be flung from one mouth to another.
Writer-director Sebastián Lelio is a decorated Chilean filmmaker making his English-language debut after the widely acclaimed Gloria and A Fantastic Woman. It’s a sad state of affairs that Lelio is one of the only male directors working today who seems truly devoted to finding new and different kinds of women-centric stories to tell on film. Still, it’s encouraging that he can approach a widening variety of subject areas (trans issues, Orthodox Judaism) as an open-hearted novice and make it seem like he’s always been here, telling these stories from the inside out.
But it almost doesn’t seem like Lelio made this one. Compared to the bursts of color and energy in his last two films, Disobedience feels positively sapped of style: After that arresting opening scene, the down-the-middle dramatics can’t contain the outpourings of emotion Weisz and McAdams bring to the table. To be fair, that might have been the point. But a little panache never hurt anyone.
Like a Hillel sandwich made from your Seder leftovers, Disobedience never quite finds that balance between sweet, bitter and brittle. But one unexpected perk of the film is the way it avoids the easy traps of depicting isolated religious fundamentalism onscreen. There is a claustrophobia and oppressiveness to the setting, of course, but it’s not simply a matter of things the film deems evil or backwards: It’s more a question of what people in a system feel they are in their right or power to do. Dovid becomes a key to the story in a fascinating way, and Nivola’s finely measured performance shows us the conflicted man under the mask of Torah study. The best films about religion are the ones that provoke honest dialogues about faith, and humanity’s role within it. We never get all the way there with Disobedience, but at least it’s blown the shofar.