This one has been on my radar for a while, now. Having first been released about a month ago, it’s been slowly expanding around the country and finally made its way within reasonable driving distance. The trailer came off as powerful and affecting and what genuine film lover can resist the tag team of Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams?
Directed and co-written (along with Rebecca Lenkiewicz) by Sebastián Lelio (A Fantastic Woman), and based upon Naomi Alderman’s novel of the same name, Disobedience introduces us to Weisz’s Ronit Krushka. When she learns of the death of her father, Ronit returns from New York to the strict Orthodox Jewish London community in which she was raised. Upon her arrival, she reconnects with a pair of friends from her youth, Dovid (Alessandro Nivola) and Esti (McAdams) who, to Ronit’s surprise, are now married. What makes this surprising is that Ronit was essentially excommunicated from her community due to the mutual attraction she and Esti shared in their youth and Ronit’s resistance towards conforming to the others’ close-mindedness and discriminatory practices. Now that she’s returned, Ronit must not only fight for the right to mourn for her own father but also seek closure to the flame that was nearly ignited years before with Esti.
On the surface, Disobedience is a relatively straightforward story of forbidden love, but, in actuality, there’s much more going on than just that. There’s a complexity to the characters and their relationships that adds a layer of artistry that would have otherwise been missing, thereby rendering the film superficial and derivative. But there’s such a vast history among the three leads’ characters that the actors, themselves, must keep it in mind at all times and use it to inform their performances. Not only that, but this history is revealed to the audience at a methodical pace – almost painfully so, at first – leaving it to the cast to educate the viewer through facial expressions and body language while they are being constrained by the script. It’s a difficult dance but Weisz, McAdams, and Nivola handle it delicately and deftly.
Within the narrative framework, great effort is expended in order to give the three primary players their own unique personalities, perspectives, and motivations. Ronit is now well-traveled and has seen more enlightened and progressive cultures. She has less tolerance for suppression masquerading as love and has no trouble expressing her point of view. Esti has lived a more sheltered life. She knows that forcing herself to live within the constraints of others’ desires is wrong but she has trouble finding her voice and gathering the courage to rock the boat. Dovid is somewhere in the middle. One has the sense that he knows the difference between right and wrong but, like Esti, he lacks a strength, as well. But the strength he lacks is the strength to admit that he has been on the wrong side and that the act of that admission will likely cost him everything he holds dear.
While the characters and story are strong, the film’s biggest weakness is its pacing and energy. Considering the intense feelings and ideological dichotomies at play, here, it’s often a sleepy little film – at least for much of the first forty minutes, or so. It takes a while for the core narrative to engage and, while we wait, there is scene after scene of low key dialogue and the sense that the film is biding its time. From the perspective of the characters, it makes perfect sense; they’re all feeling each other out, not remotely sure of where they stand with each other after all the time that’s passed. So, creatively, it’s a valid choice to ease into the proceedings. But from the audience’s perspective, the first act may be somewhat tedious, especially since it’s pretty obvious what the main source of conflict is going to be, making it tempting to just want to see the film get on with it.
But, once it does, it becomes very engaging. If the first act felt twice as long as it actually was, the last two acts felt twice as short. Part of it stems from the performances (the chemistry lamentably lacking from Shailene Woodley and Sam Claflin in Adrift is abundant between Weisz and McAdams. I felt it and I was rooting for them. That’s the difference between more-and less-experienced talent.), but much of it lies in the multilayered nature of the film’s themes.
As I alluded to earlier, this isn’t just a tale of forbidden love. The narrative really digs into why it’s forbidden and what that says about the culture that deems it as such. The basic idea behind organized religion is a good one, but the execution of that idea is often twisted to meet the personal desires of the beholder. Lelio and Alderman strive to make the point that living one’s life as desired by that person should be the norm, whereas justifying mandates that combat non-harmful and -intrusive lifestyles should be scorned. Many try to politicize this idea but it has nothing to do with politics; tax policies and the national debt are political issues. Basic human respect and decency is not. So, while this story focuses on a specific story of sexual and romantic freedom, it’s very clear that the principles in question apply to many different people and many different scenarios.
It was a little difficult to settle into Disobedience, at first. But, by the end, I was intellectually engaged and emotionally connected to the characters, story, and ideas at play. This isn’t a film that uses a lot of crazy, Hollywood-esque developments to suck the audience in and hold their attention. Almost all of the “action”, so to speak, happens within – a series of internal battles for one’s own life, freedom, and self-respect. The film makes one important point and it makes it well: if you’re living for anyone but yourself, you’re doing it wrong.
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