DISOBEDIENCE IS SET in the small orthodox Jewish community of Hendon in London (wonderfully realized by director/script-writer Sebastián Lelio who also directed A Fantastic Woman and production designer, Sarah Finlay). It is a tight-knit community, bound together by strict laws and protocols (sex is for Fridays). Ritual is all. The bewigged women all look pretty much the same, as do the black-hatted, bearded men. They look alike; they think alike. It is the only sanctioned way of life.
It is suffocating.
And yet, at the very beginning of the story, we meet the frail rabbinical elder, Rav Krushka (Anton Lesser), who preaches a sermon that seems almost radical. “Man,” he says, “hang(s) suspended between the clarity of the angels and the desires of the beasts…a being with free will…with the power to disobey”.
And then he dies. Struck down?
As the story unfolds, the theme of freedom (and the free will to disobey) is played out with all the nuances of its implications. Free will, the power to choose to obey or not, the story suggests, is a fundamental part of who we are. But freedom does not equate with happiness. To seek it requires daring and courage. Freedom is a burden. It is easier simply give in to the communal will, to be one of the angels or one of the beasts.
It is this death, the rabbi’s “departure”, that is the catalyst for the visit of his estranged, rebel daughter, Ronit (Rachel Weisz), a chain smoking photographer living in a Manhattan (another kind of “departure”), given, it seems, to occasional sex with anonymous persons. And not even on a Friday.
Her return is cause for some consternation in this strict, judgmental community. It is also cause for some excitement for recently married Esti (Rachel McAdams), the woman who is not free to love her, but whose love for her cannot be contained. This Sapphic passion is an unorthodox love in an orthodox world. Indeed, perhaps all love contains its own unorthodoxy.
The story follows the events leading up to the funeral, as the rekindled passions shape the destinies of the three protagonists, Esti, her enamorrata, Ronit and Esti’s despairing, angry, empathetic husband, Dovid (Alessandro Nivola) the heir apparent to the temple’s leadership. For all three, the choice is the same: accept the cosy comfort zone of community obeisance (The role of the woman as helpmeet and bearer of children is mapped out clearly) or take the leap into the uncertain future of individual choice.
All three actors are outstanding in this very literary, wordy, beautifully written script (adapted from the book by Naomi Alderman). The relationship between Ronit and Esti – their love and longing and lust – feels palpably real (though it beats me why directors and actors could work so hard to deliver believable worlds, only to crack the honed surface of verisimilitude with the coy artifice of people making love with all their clothes on). Rachel Weisz in particular shines as the wronged woman punished by the community; the image of the glamorous Bohemian living in exotic New York is really a lost soul, stoically living in exile.
It’s one thing for Bob Marley to urge us to “emancipate yourself from mental slavery”. But the reality is that the price you have to pay – of loneliness, ostracism, exile, perhaps death – comes very dear indeed.
DISOBEDIENCE. Dir: Sebastián Leilo. Writers: Sebastián Leilo and Rebecca Lenkiewicz (Ida). With: Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams (Spotlight), Alessandro Nivola (Selma, You Were Never Really Here). Cinematographer: Danny Cohen (Florence Foster Jenkins). Production Designer: Sarah Finlay (Juliet, Naked)