Disobedience is a sensitive, intelligent and deeply humane work, exquisitely executed and performed, that pits individual freedom of choice against the restrictions of fundamentalist religious faith.
In the beginning of Disobedience, rabbi Rav Krushka (Anton Lesser), esteemed elder of an Orthodox Jewish community in London, is giving an address on the responsibilities and consequences that come with exercising free will. Turns out that this is the thematic thread that runs through the film.
Right and wrong are relatively simply concepts for those who believe that religion provides a moral blueprint for human behaviour. The answers are all in the Torah, the Bible, the Koran… and for the traditional Orthodox community in which Disobedience is set, clarification of any grey areas is the province of Rav Krushka. The grief is immediate and all-consuming for his followers, then, when he collapses and dies just after his free will address. In a sense, the community is rendered rudderless until a new head rabbi is appointed.
At this time of unsettling flux, the deceased rabbi’s estranged bisexual photographer daughter Ronit (Rachel Weisz) flies in from New York after 20 years away, and reunites with her two best friends from her youth, ex-lover Esti (Rachel McAdams) and Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), now a devout rabbinical scholar and the likely successor to Rav Krushka. Ronit is shaken by the revelation that Esti and Dovid are married, and indeed, they don’t seem like a good fit. They’re more respectful than loving towards each other, and their sexual interactions (every Friday night) come across as dutiful rather than passionate. It seems that both – or at least Esti – have sacrificed themselves on the altar of Community expectations.
The wheels of life-altering change are set in motion for the three of them when Ronit and Esti yield to their still blazing sexual attraction. Of course, their liaisons must be in secret. It was their affair decades earlier that resulted in Ronit’s estrangement from her father and her leaving the Community. Indeed, she finds she is still shunned at social gatherings, and is hurt to learn that her father has disowned and disinherited her.
The playing out of the love triangle drama is in effect an investigation into the grey areas of morality that do not exist for the religious fundamentalist. Academy Award-winning Chilean director Sebastián Lelio is ever the humanist here, celebrating the sexual love of the women in a beautiful and genuinely erotic bedroom scene, while not steering away from the pain of betrayal that results for Dovid, or the anger that erupts in him.
While the women risk damnation in the eyes of the Community in choosing to reignite their love, Lelio takes a larger view that they are acting in a greater good – that is, being true to themselves. Further, he does not depict Dovid as Esti’s oppressor or the Orthodox Jewish community as The Enemy – but neither does he shy away from showing the narrow-minded and at times hateful traits of some of the self-righteous and judgemental Community members. It is much to Lelio’s credit that while he does not spare these individuals, he remains generally respectful of the Community and its religious foundations, built on centuries of Jewish culture and tradition. Many a lesser filmmaker would have settled for a binary approach.
As the narrative moves to its conclusion, there is a powerful and profoundly moving image of inclusion whereby Dovid brings Ronit in from the cold. Implicit here is the suggestion that the future of the Community lies with people like him who can rise above ego, personal pain and fundamentalist dogma to acknowledge and accept human complexity and the freedom of individuals to choose what is right for them. Which begs the question as to whether Dovid’s humanism and devotion to the Orthodox Jewish community can co-exist…
Disobedience is a sensitive, intelligent, exquisitely executed and at times deeply affecting work, serious-minded yet never ponderous, and featuring wonderful performances from Weisz, McAdams and Nivola. It deserves a far wider audience than it is likely to attract.
Movie Website: https://bleeckerstreetmedia.com/disobedience
Australian release date: Disobedience is showing at Luna Cinema, Leederville from June 14, 2018
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