DISOBEDIENCE: Featured Image

Desire — whether you label it lust, infatuation, or love — is arguably the most dangerous feeling human beings experience. Exhilarating, confusing, terrifying — often all at once — it drives us to acts both incredible and petty. A life ruled by desire would be a thrilling thing sure to destroy you. DISOBEDIENCE suggests, however, that there is a more beguiling force than desire and that is desire deferred or derailed and then rediscovered.

Capturing desire on-screen, however, is a tricky maneuver. Too indulgent and the work feels pornographic or alienating. Too restrained and it feels false and empty. Add in that the desire that drives DISOBEDIENCE is Sapphic and directed by a man. Realizing desire in a realistic, compelling, but non-exploitative manner becomes that much harder. The film must quicken the pulse to make you feel swept up alongside the players. However, it can never give into the temptation to titillate.

DISOBEDIENCE: Rinot and Dovid, Together Again
Rachel Weisz and Alessandro Nivola meet again, awkwardly in a scene from DISOBEDIENCE. (Courtesy of Bleecker Street)

The Idea Behind DISOBEDIENCE

Ronit Krushka (Rachel Weisz) is a British ex-pat living in New York as a photographer. A call from home pulls her back to her native community, an Orthodox Jewish enclave in North London. She left more than a decade earlier for unstated reasons and cut ties with everyone. Only the death of her father, a Rabbi and leader of the community, has forced her back.

There she encounters her former best friends. Dovid (Alessandro Nivola) a student of her father’s has seemingly risen to become the heir to spiritual and community leadership. Esti (Rachel McAdams) has embraced her role as a Orthodox Jewish woman. She has adopted the rules of modesty. She dresses in dark colors that conceal her body and a wig—the sheitel—in public. What truly shocks Ronit, however, is that the two have married in her absence.

As the story continues, we learn Ronit and Esti secretly had a young adult sexual relationship that the Rabbi discovered. That’s when Ronit ran and Esti redoubled her efforts to be who her community expected. With Ronit back again, however, the delicate balance has been upset. With that, events begin to cascade, threatening Ronit and Dovid’s marriage and more.

DISOBEDIENCE: In mourning
In DISOBEDIENCE, Rachel McAdams and Alessandro Nivola lead a processional. (Courtesy of Bleecker Street Media)

The Writing

Director Sebastián Lelio and Rebecca Lenkiewicz adaptation of the novel by Naomi Alderman makes an immediate smart change. Instead of using the first person like the novel, the film offers us no direct access to anyone’s thoughts. Ronit remains the center of the story, but the film forces us to observe everyone to understand people’s internal experiences.

The script has a hushed, coiled quality. Throughout most of the film’s running time, it feels a bit like a subcutaneous bruise. Nothing is visible on the surface. The community runs as it ever did. Dovid and Esti’s marriage is one of fidelity. Ronit’s pain is only for her father.

However, with each moment, the rage, confusion, and a very different kind of sadness pulse just under the skin. The viewer increasingly anticipates the moment that hidden welt gets accidentally bumped or purposely pressed.

However, we witness a moment of delirious release even knowing the angry shuddering agony of the buried contusion awaits. We see Ronit and Esti give into their desire, letting us—and them— beautifully feel what could have been. Reality still invades, but not before the script helps us understand what is at stake.

The script’s one misstep comes, in the film’s last ten minutes or so. A character makes a choice that seemingly runs aground of the scene before it without explanation provided. In visiting the book, I understood what happened, but nothing on-screen explains it. In a screenplay that presents us a myriad of conflicting choices so well, it is an odd and disappointing oversight.

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Casting The Leads of DISOBEDIENCE: Rachel Weisz

We first see Weisz in her new life, taking pictures. Her subject, however, tells us all we need to know about her. The subject has spent in life in pursuit of something that stands forbidden in nearly every sect of Judaism. Even those who identify as only culturally Jewish would pick it out as a banned activity.

This continues–and escalates–even after hearing of her father’s death. In a series of cuts, she commits acts that would be frowned upon, if not forbidden, by her former faith. Before her return to the Orthodox community, these are five of the six things she does. While these could be acts of liberating rebellion, Weisz’s face tells us something different. There is no zeal for these choices in her eyes, no spark of life. The most passionate moment she has comes during her sixth action. There, on a park bench, she engages in kriah, the traditional rending of garments to denote mourning.

Once in London, Weisz captures Ronit’s struggle between finding comfort in her old traditions and remaining herself. It is no mistake that Ronit’s first moment of shame does not concern her current attire or lifestyle. Instead it comes when Esti catches her wearing a sheitel while walking around. The quickness with which Weisz pulls it from her head proves a perfect bit of business. You can see part of her liked it. To have someone see that truth embarrasses her.

DISOBEDIENCE: Prayer Time
Rachel McAdams leads the Shabbot prayer with Alessandro Nivola while Rachel Weisz looks on in a scene from DISOBEDIENCE. (Courtesy of Bleecker Street Media)

Casting the Lead of DISOBEDIENCE: Rachel McAdams

Something McAdams does so well is show that she is not just a prisoner of the Orthodox Jewish community. A lesser film might depict her as a woman for whom tradition only offers imprisonment. However, he shows that she loves her faith and her community. Through a small smile to hearing singing in Hebrew. Via the way she greets her students at the Orthodox school. Even the quiet pride of performing the first prayer of Shabbat. It all shows us she is not there wholly out of inertia. Belonging enriches and enlivens her. It also just happens to deny her the right to be a woman who is solely attracted to women.

Related to that, McAdams does a wonderful job of differentiating between her pleasure. I know this sounds like a weird or perhaps creepy thing to pick up on, but it is true. When she and Dovid have sex on Shabbot — an act not required but highly suggested–her feelings are unclear. Is she enjoying it? Does it feel good? However, later when we see her with Ronit, it becomes crystal clear she was not. Or, at least, not as fully. It is subtle. There are no screaming orgasms or over the top writhing to mark it, but it’s there. With a slight change in the pitch of her moan and the look on her face, she reveals to the audience the sex that fulfills her and the sex of obligation.

Also worthy of note is the way McAdams lets her teen years play across her face. Alone with Ronit, you can spot the girl she was when they were friends and lovers. You can see how being able to explore her sexuality again brings her right back there. Again, not showy, just very well done.

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Casting the Lead of DISOBEDIENCE: Alessandro Nivola

With what is the least flashy and essential role, Nivola could have turned in a fairly straightforward performance. He could have depicted Dovid in a number of easy ways—angry, bigoted, clueless, totally supportive. Instead, though, Nivola fills Dovid out completely. You get his place as the third leg of the former trio. You understand why he ended up the Rabbi’s chosen student. He, just like Ronit and Esti, has ended stuck in the middle between the holy and the worldly. He loves both of his friends and he wants happiness for them both. At the same time, his commitment to his faith and marriage matter the utmost to him.

There is one scene in particular where Dovid tries to comfort Ronit as Esti looks on. He cannot touch her due to rules about interactions between the sexes. Instead, he hovers his hands around her face, bringing them as close as he can, as her dares. The tension in his hands, the way they shake ever so slightly, revealing his desperation to honor both his commitments. More importantly, it shows how he can’t, no matter how much he wants to. One aspect has to win. He cannot be both a good Orthodox Jewish religious leader and a good friend to Ronit.

DISOBEDIENCE: Esti and Rinot escape society
Rachel McAdams and Rachel Weisz tour North London’s beautiful alleys in DISOBEDIENCE. (Courtesy of Bleecker Street Media)

Filming

The director and cinematography capture how this enclave can be both claustrophobic and comforting at once. Nearly every scene fills the frame with people and objects. Never overly cluttered or busy, it serves to convey the enmeshment of the community. When focusing on a character, the camera often settles dead directly in front, letting their face feel the fame. Two-shots are similarly tight. When shooting characters from a distance, there are always things between them and the camera. A swinging door, the legs of a banister, a light candle, and so on. Again, the effect is to convey that this is a community where space — literal and metaphorical — is rarely found or valued.

The last shot of the movie, then, stands out all the more strongly. The only crane shot in the movie, it conveys a literal lightning. The character’s burden, the one that has followed them from the start, lifts and the camera responds accordingly, rising as though free.

DISOBEDIENCE: This kiss, this kiss
Rachel McAdams and Rachel Weisz nearly cross the line. (Courtesy of Bleecker Street Media)

Striking the Set

There are so many potential ways for DISOBEDIENCE to go off course. Make anyone too villainous or too fortuitous. Make either the sacred or the secular clearly superior at the cost of the other. Turn the story into a fairytale or a clichéd tragedy. But it avoids them all.

DISOBEDIENCE is a quiet tale rife with emotions that are screaming from every hard smile and each upturned gaze. Sad, lonely, claustrophobic and yet ultimately hopeful, it treats its characters and their causes with respect. Most impressively, it is not some hermetic affair, sealed under glass, and separated from the desire that fuels. You can feel the lust, the eagerness, possess the characters like they are right back to their first kiss. An impressive feat from start to finish.

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