DISOBEDIENCE Review: Sexuality And Religion Butt Heads

The Rachels are the highlight of this story of lesbian love against religious adversity.

Sebastián Lelio is really shaping up to be a force to be reckoned with from the independent scene. His films are primarily character studies of singularly unique women, focused heavily on individual performances coaxed out of women put through emotional straits. His talents seem best served when zeroed in on a sole subject, like in his work on A Fantastic Woman, which functions as one of the most empathetic examinations of transgender identity put to film (at least in this writer's estimation). And now, only a few months later, here we are with another Lelio project placing its lens on queer womanhood, an adaptation of Naomi Alderman's Disobedience. Here we see the empathy one would come to expect from Lelio, but unfortunately it's the juggling of multiple major characters in a thematically dense plot structure that keeps this from the same heights as his Oscar-winning achievement.

Disobedience follows Ronit (Rachel Weisz), a photographer in New York who receives word that her father in London has died. She travels back home to the community of her birth, an Orthodox Jewish enclave that encourages strict gender roles and adherence to marital tradition while expressing disdain for those who would choose to leave their society. Upon her return, Ronit reunites with her best friend Dovid (Alessandro Nivola) – who is now positioned to take over from Ronit's father as the Rabbi of the community – and also discovers that he is married to their mutual best friend Esti (Rachel McAdams). As Ronit gets her father's affairs in order, feelings rekindle between Ronit and Esti, as the practical impossibility of their teenage romance was the main reason why Ronit left the community for the more openly accepting outside world.

Lelio's main weakness is an inability to put plot before character, so while the film deals with themes of religious community butting heads against sexual individuality, that isn't pushed as the central focus of the narrative. Yes, we have lots of scenes where community members passive-aggressively confront Ronit for leaving Orthodoxy behind, and we have a near equal number of instances where Ronit is argumentatively defensive of her life choices, but the film doesn't so much pass judgment on the insular nature of Orthodox Judaism as it does treat it as a life choice Ronit is judged for not making "correctly" by those still within the community. This leaves the conflict between Ronit and her religious background feeling a little limp, as she comes into this community fully formed and doesn't so much change from the experience as become the film's point of contrast to a world the audience may not be familiar with.

However, it's in the performances that Lelio's direction shines, building a love triangle between Ronit, Esti, and Dovid that is erotic as it is heartbreaking. The stars are of course Weisz and McAdams, who represent diametrically opposed approaches to the conflict between religion and sexuality. Ronit is headstrong and mildly resentful, but she still misses the sense of belonging she once had, whereas Esti is more meek and demure, adhering to her wifely role with ease but longing to unearth the buried parts of her soul. When these two characters occupy the same space, though, sparks fly, as tension and lust lie buried just beneath the surface until they finally come together in one of the most tender and explicit sex scenes in recent memory. Yet it's also worth noting that Alessandro Nivola does his own share of the heavy lifting, as Dovid is a man of the faith who can't quite bring himself to accept that his childhood friends could choose love for each other over devotion to a faith he holds so dear. It's powerful character work all around that transforms thematically representational avatars into fully realized people with dimension.

This isn't Lelio's most cogent or engaging work, as the dilution of character study across multiple characters doesn't do his ultra-focused style any favors. However, he is still a master at provoking enthralling performances from his muses, particularly his actresses, and in this Disobedience is no exception.

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