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“Disobedience”: Forbidden Love in a Repressive Society

“Disobedience”: Forbidden Love in a Repressive Society

Scene from the film, Disobedience; main characters are lighting Shabbat candles

Sebastian Lelio’s new film, “Disobedience,” the follow-up to his Oscar-winning triumph, “A Fantastic Woman,” features an all-star cast and a similar concern for what he sees as the repercussions of forbidden romance in a repressive society.

In this case, the society is a small ultra-Orthodox Jewish enclave on the outskirts of London, and the lovers are Ronit (Rachel Weisz), a former member of the community who has returned to attend the funeral of her father, Rav Kruschka, and Etsi (Rachel McAdams), a closeted lesbian with whom Ronit shares a passionate history.

It is no surprise that community members recoil at the discovery that the two women have rekindled their romance.

Etsi’s husband is Rabbi Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), the designated successor to Rav Kruscka. Embodying the social and religious mores of this community, the young rabbi wants to be welcoming to Ronit, but regards her with suspicion from the moment she arrives at his door. It doesn’t help that Etsi married Dovid to put her heretical urges behind her. If the embers of forbidden love are stirred, not only would Dovid lose the wife he loves, but his standing in the community would be threatened as well.

The stakes are high, but the storytelling is spare. Much of the film tracks the characters as they move from room to room, their thoughts obscured, the pain of the world around them written across their faces. In the first third of the movie, Weisz is asked to carry almost every frame, the sound of her breath a performance itself, her eyes twitching this way and that as she takes in the tradition-bound community from which she long ago escaped.

We learn that no one had told Ronit about her father’s failing health, extinguishing any chance of reconciliation. She is neither acknowledged in his obituary nor mentioned in his will. The cause of this unfortunate breech is soon revealed to be her youthful dalliance with Etsi, played in vivid and subtle ways by McAdams, who easily steals the focus of the story moving forward.

Much has already been made of the spectacle of two well-known actresses playing lovers. “Disobedience” has been compared to the French lesbian romance, “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” also featuring women in graphic sex scenes. In the former, the lovemaking feels neither contrived nor gratuitous; it serves as a pivotal moment for Etsi, underscoring her plight as a woman who has no attraction to men and for years has been sexually unfulfilled with her husband.

It is unclear whether Etsi’s sexual encounters are completely within her power to control.  When Ronit presses her on this question, she simply explains that while she can say no, on Shabbat sex is expected. Ronit is explicit in her distaste for this patriarchal structure, condemning on several occasions the idea that women are here solely to bear children.

The filmmaker gives us a detailed depiction of this omnipresent community – self-policing in life, supportive in death, – in which the women wear modest clothing and “frum” (religious) wigs to cover their heads. Ronit’s uncle is even a wig maker.

We are left oddly at arms-length when it comes to nailing down Lelio’s perspective on religious orthodoxy or the conflicting forces affecting the lives of Ronit and Etsi. At times it seems evident that the community is what stands in their way, yet no one is forcing Etsi to stay. Even Dovid, the film’s most developed representation of orthodoxy, shifts in subtle and unexpected ways between rigidity and empathy in confronting Etsi’s actions.

Lelio is clearly interested in examining the decisions of the individuals confined within a repressive world. The fact that this world is Jewish, seems to be secondary to the larger story he’s trying to tell.

As the film moves toward a resolution, this blurring of the universal and the particular undermines what ultimately could be a powerful message of reconciliation. Lelio tries on several different endings, cycling through them all without fully committing to any. His hands-off approach to the narrative keeps the story small rather than building to any sense of greater significance.

Despite its ambiguities, “Disobedience” is a riveting tale, thanks to the three leads and their beautifully nuanced performances.

Wes Hopper is a writer and reviewer living in Los Angeles.

Wes Hopper

Published: 4/30/2018

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