2018 Tribeca Film Festival Review: ‘Disobedience,’Starring Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams, Alessandro Nivola
Disobedience directed by Sebastian Lelio, written by Sebastián Lelio and Rebecca Lenkiewicz received its US Premiere at Tribeca Film Festival 2018. Based on the titular novel by Naomi Alderman, the film is striking for its dynamic and profoundly rendered performances by Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams and Alessandro Nivolo who are caught in an unwitting love triangle. Within a matter of three or four days, as long as it takes to say goodbye to a beloved rabbi, the three must reconcile the truth and establish the deepest kind of love for each other in the form of forgiveness and self-love that brings healing and acceptance.
The title is an extreme irony for on the one hand no one in the film outside of the culture of the community where the action takes place commits any wrongdoing. However, based upon the perspective of the strict, religious Orthodox community of Jews in North London where the characters play out their drama, love between two women is forbidden. And it is here that the film launches into one of the most poignant and uplifting of LGBTQ films that has been filmed to date.
Ronit, a New York photographer who has been estranged from her rabbi father returns home for his funeral to pay respect and gain closure, if possible. She discovers that the Orthodox Jewish congregation holds little interest for her nor demonstrates conviviality. Even her relatives are cold. Indeed, her lifestyle and freedom living as an independent free-wheeling woman in the US has transformed her since she has shed the strict upbringing under which she was raised, though she is still Jewish. As she attempts to negotiate the services for her father, she meets old friends with whom she grew up and is shocked to discover that Esti (Rachel McAdams) has married Dovid (Alessandro Nivolo). When she discusses their relationship with them, she discovers that Esti is miserable with Dovid who has worked closely with Ronit’s father in the synagogue and most probably will take over the congregation now that the rabbi has died.
The film progresses slowly, profoundly and painstakingly and this is where the three actors shine in their almost second to second precision as they react to one another in measured, careful beats. We note the underpinnings and feelings that the women suppress in public. The air between them is heavy with meaning, and Dovid is sensitive enough to divine that the two have feelings for each other that transcend the ordinary relationship of childhood friends.
Eventually, the filmmaker reveals that Ronit (Rachel Weisz in a dogged and measured performance) and Esti (Rachel McAdams is the perfect foil playing off Weisz’s inner peace with a yearning grace of her own) had an affair and were intimate in complete contravention of the mores of the Orthodox community.
Ronit’s father, a rabbi, expects strict adherence to Jewish folkways for his children, and when he was apprised of Ronit’s behavior, they argued. The film is fascinating in that the father’s presence makes itself felt, though we never see him. The estrangement reveals that her father adheres more to the role of rabbi and fears the disapproval of his congregation than demonstrating the perfect law of love and grace which as a rabbi he is supposed to exemplify. Hypocritically, the rabbi wants nothing to do with his daughter. Their estrangement and his unforgiveness carry through to the disposition of his possessions and his house. He has disinherited Ronit and has given everything to charity.
Ronit left her father, the Orthodox Jewish folkways and culture, and sought the freedom of the US. However, it is apparent she has not left her love of God though she is free from Orthodoxy. Ronit is a sterling individual. Courageously, she carves out her own life confronting her sexual orientation as second nature for she is intimate with both men and women.
On the other hand, Esti has had to live under the strictures that Ronit discarded. And as a married woman and a lesbian which the community considers anathema and “unclean,” she despises herself and her hypocrisy that she has chosen a life of shame, though on the surface she is a pious, good wife to her husband. Nevertheless, like the Rabbi who has a daughter whom he cannot forgive, Esti stays in a marriage which is false and the intimacy between her and Dovid is false and truly unfair to him.
Though the film concentrates on the relationships of Dovid, Ronit and Esti, in the shadows, we understand that the Orthodox Jewish culture nullifies and pushes individuals further from God rather than closer to him in love and forgiveness. Out of all of the characters in the film, Ronit best exemplifies God’s love and it is through her loving example with Dovid and Esti that the married couple are made free to leave one another and in the case of Dovid allow himself to be free of the position of rabbi. For as a result of Ronit’s visit and the revelations that occur, he realizes he must not take up the mantle of hypocrisy that Ronit’s father has worn in front of his congregation, looking like the martyred saint, while being unforgiving to his daughter.
One of the most important themes in Disobedience cannot be overstated enough.The strict mores and unforgiving Orthodox Jewish community like any orthodox religious community creates misery and torment. The religious mores work in the reverse. They do not free. Instead, they chain the congregation to an obedience which is not loving of God who forgives. It chains them to behavior which is unforgiving its acceptance of a false obedience to the orthodoxy which discourages love and forgiveness. Thus, when Ronit first visits, we see how the congregants respond to her. Indeed, Ronit’s example is frightening to the community who rejects her rather than attempts to understand who she is.
The conundrum Esti’s character faces becomes clear to us and to Ronit when she tells Ronit that she wanted to see her and though Ronit didn’t know who sent word, Esti admits that it was she who sent word her father died. Indeed. The complexity of their relationship, one being free and the other living in bondage and lies reveals the secret intimacy between them is a freeing one for Esti. However, before Ronit visits, Esti is incapable of seeing a way out because Dovid is a lovely, kind individual and there is external security in being with the community, though the security is a prison.
Only when Ronit and she are intimate in a hotel room and she is able to express her passion as a gay woman to one she loved in the past, does she set herself free. For her part, Ronit is settled in who she is and her own freedom kindles the love in Esti to set her at ease with her decision to leave Dovid.
By the end of the film, Ronit is a beacon to Esti and Dovid. Esti wants to be free of her shame, her hypocrisy and her unhappiness with Dovid whom she loves, but not in the fullness of expression as she loves Ronit. Ronit helps her achieve freedom to forgive herself and move on away from Dovid and the congregation.
The most poignant one in this threesome is Dovid. But he, too, overcomes the shackles of the congregation’s stultifying mores. He forgives both of the women and understands that to command Esti to stay with him or love him is unloving and hateful of her true nature. His character beautifully portrayed by Nivola is the one who evolves and accepts the challenges of discovering what love and forgiveness should be for one in a position to lead others in God’s laws of love.
The film’s pacing is particularly interesting in the beginning. All is subtext and it keeps one considering what is happening between and among the three friends. It is a must-see for the superb acting, the excellent adaptation of the script and the measured cinematography which serves characterization and theme. Kudos to all involved, especially the actors and the director who elicited their performances.