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Posted on the 01 October 2018 by Christopher Saunders
DisobedienceDisobedience (2017) offers viewers a quiet, somber look at faith, fate and romance. Sebastian Lelio's movie skillfully weaves together disparate themes and characters into a rich, thoughtful film.
Ronit Krushna (Rachel Weisz), a photographer living in New York, learns that her father (Anton Lesser), an Orthodox rabbi, has passed away. Ronit has all but renounced her life and clashes immediately with her friends and relatives, including her traditionalist uncle Moshe (Allan Corduner) and her father's protege, Dovid Kuperman (Alessandro Nivoli). Unable to reclaim her father's legacy, she drifts about London while befriending Dovid's wife Esti (Rachel McAdams), a repressed lesbian unable to accept her sexuality. Things grow complicated when Ronit and Esti fall for each other; more complicated, still, when Dovid's nominated to assume Rabbi Krushna's position.
Based on Naomi Alderman's novel, Disobedience scores for its sensitivity. Orthodox Judaism hasn't fared well on film, when it's treated at all, yet Lelio and co-writer Rebecca Lenkiewicz examine it through a sympathetic lens. The movie celebrates Jewish ritual and traditions while also noting that religious gender roles and moral restrictions make it difficult to square with modern society. Hence Esti's torment over her sexual orientation; she dutifully consigns herself to loveless trysts with her husband in hopes that marriage, and possibly childbearing, will "cure" her. Hence also Ronit's reckless agency: in a society when women are expected to be quiet, obedient wives, she spurns her heritage, even adopting a goyish professional pseudonym. In turn, she's treated with varying degrees of coldness and contempt by her old friends, who treat her very independence as an affront.
Indeed Disobedience's main strand becomes this question of agency, as the sermons book-ending the film make clear. Rather than merely condemn the backward aspects of Orthodox Judaism, the film examines its role, most obviously through Dovid. Dovid is an intelligent, reflective and sensitive man who feels torn between the Torah's moral strictures and his empathy. His initial reaction to her relationship with Ronit is rage and disbelief; then he embraces it as a crisis of faith, a test of his own moral fiber...forcing him to consider her a person rather than a pride. Similarly, Ronit finds her breezy, arrogant contempt unfitting the situation and, ultimately, unfair to those around her. She comes to view Esti not as a victim nor her husband an oppressor, but people forced to play roles in a society they didn't choose.
Lelio's direction is muted yet engaging, stressing Jewish rituals, songs and community scenes in contrast to Ronit's fast-paced life in New York. Danny Cohen's photography adopts a near-monochrome pallet of blacks, blues and whites, most obviously in Dovid and Esti's neighborhood but even in city and crowd scenes, always in jittery close-up or expressive two-shot. Similarly, Matthew Herbert's score is elegantly restrained, discordant and emotive enough to provide an emotional kick without undercutting the drama.
Rachel Weisz (who co-produced) plays Ronit's existential rage and aimlessness with skill, a hard exterior covering internal vulnerability. Rachel McAdams is even better: her familiar features take on a sensitive, almost porcelain texture through Lelio's photography, re-casting the one-time Regina George as a deeply hurt, spiritually wounded figure thrashing madly for happiness. Alessandro Nivoli does career-best work with a similarly subtle turn: a halting, hesitant delivery matched with expressions alternately searching, pleading and self-loathing, it's a restrained performance easily matching the two female leads.
Perhaps the best part of Disobedience is that it avoids the obvious resolutions. Ronit gains empathy but doesn't abandon materialism for religion; Esti accepts her sexuality but finds neither happiness nor simple tragedy; Dovid learns to become more tolerant and accepting without losing his calling. People are too complicated for such pat resolutions; fortunately, Disobedience's creators recognize this, creating a movie that's both downbeat and strangely hopeful.

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