Sometimes you don’t have to go too far afield to find worlds that feel utterly foreign. The Orthodox Jewish community at the center of the film “Disobedience” is one that will likely look exceedingly strange to the average person. On display in the story are archaic rituals, ultra-conservative beliefs at odds with modern sensibilities, and even a dress code that looks ludicrous by today’s standards. The northern London Jewish community presented here is an exceedingly restrictive world, particularly for women. Yet, within this bubble of a neighborhood, a love story will flourish, and it’s one that will defy all of the Jewish practices.
As the film starts, Ronit Krushka (Rachel Weisz) is returning home to the UK from the States for her father’s funeral. Ronit is a Jewish woman who left many years ago to escape the restrictions placed upon her sex. In fact, she was all but forced out due to a sexual romance between her and a teenage friend named Esti (Rachel McAdams). Any whiff of lesbianism is an offense against religious tradition and Ronit was all but hounded out of town. Her shame was made even more palpable by the fact that her father Rav Krushka (Anton Lesser) was the rabbi in the Orthodox community. He shunned her, and they never spoke again. Now, after many years away, Ronit reluctantly returns to bury him. Unfortunately, her feelings for Esti aren’t so readily laid to rest.
Living in New York for over a decade has only added to Ronit’s liberalism. She speaks her mind, has progressive attitudes, and even smokes openly in public. Still, Ronit submits herself to the gauntlet of dirty looks and snide comments from family and friends of old, in order to pay her last respects. Complicating matters for her is Esti. She not only invited Ronit but continues to have the same sexual feelings she once had for her. That’s an immense problem since Esti is now married to Rav’s protégé Dovid Kuperman (Alessandro Nivola). Furthering the strain is the fact that Dovid was once a great friend to both girls before the fallout of their same-sex affair.
Still, Dovid wants to be a good man and remain a dear friend, so he invites Ronit to stay with them in their home. He feels secure enough in his marriage to be so confident but fails to see that his wife is unhappy and looking for something else. The weary Esti bites her tongue around her neighbors, rarely giving her opinions or responding openly to the many sexist remarks. Her eyes look away during her husband’s affections, particularly during their joyless lovemaking. She is hiding more than her modesty under the sheitel, the Orthodox wig she dons in public. Esti is hiding all she thinks and feels.
McAdams’ eyes have always been one of her greatest tools as an actress, and here she uses them to convey all the dissatisfaction and frustrations swirling underneath the surface in Esti. There is a casual disgust present in her gaze as she watches all the old-fashioned traditions play out around her, but when Ronit returns, her eyes brighten with a new hope. It’s an incredible performance, one McAdams reveals with very little dialogue. Her body language, the way she holds her head, the blinking of her eyes – they all tell us exactly what Esti is thinking throughout the story.
In fact, this movie, written by Sebastian Lelio and Rebecca Lenkiewicz, and directed by Leio, is all about eyes and the feelings they express. The script may have dialogue, but the plot really happens in between those lines. The women’s eyes speak of unrequited love and longing for each other, while Dovid eyes continually focus elsewhere. He’s not only preoccupied with his numerous responsibilities to the fold, but he compartmentalizes most of his feelings as well. Dovid doesn’t want to believe that the embers still burn between the two women in his midst, so he closes his mind and literally, and figuratively, turns his head.
Weisz does exceptional work here, delicately conveying all of Ronit’s inner conflicts as well as her long-simmering antagonism towards the discriminating community. The Oscar-winning actress can always can make stridency charming, like she did in “The Mummy” and “The Constant Gardener”, but here she subdues her emoting. The actress, who also is one of the producers of the film, knows that Ronit is not really the protagonist in the story. Rather, it’s Esti, as she is the one who brought Ronit back, and continually makes the moves on her former lover.
Nivola works wonders with his part as well, preventing Dovid from becoming an unlikable cad. His married man is neither, and just as in the 2006 book by Naomi Alderman, Dovid turns out to be a much more advanced thinker than his religion would like him to be. And despite heavily critiquing the suffocating Orthodox community, director Leio ensures that none of the supporting players come off as mustache-twirling villains. He casts each role with care, allowing for even the most bullying members to register as three-dimensional people.
And when the two women finally act upon their love in a passionate outburst in a hotel room, it is one of the most extraordinary love scenes ever captured on film. Honest, raw, explicit, and yet with sparse nudity, it wholly persuades that these two should be together no matter what others think. Leio unleashes the scene after the slow burn of the first two-thirds of the film and its intimacy plays like a thunderclap. All the previously muted, come-hither looks give way to roaming fingers, shared saliva, and breathless gasps of ecstasy. We’re as exhilarated as Ronit and Esti are. Not since “Blue is the Warmest Color” has there been such a heartfelt and erotic scene in a mainstream movie.
Leio’s other directorial flourishes pay off in spades as well. The look of the film is consistently drab and dreary, but in the moments of joy between the two women, he has cinematographer Danny Cohen open his camera’s aperture to let the sun literally and figuratively shine in. Leio also encouraged editor Nathan Nugent to hold on reaction shots longer than usual to show us what characters are thinking a few beats after most directors would have yelled, “Cut.” This is not a film that’s fat in any way, yet those extra seconds make all the difference in the world between good and great.
The director is turning out to be quite the storyteller of unusual love stories. Leio won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in February for his Chilean transgender romance “A Fantastic Woman.” Here, Leio continues to explore how broader definitions of love are pushing the envelope in society, rightly arguing that “love is love is love.” Ronit and Esti’s connection may hurt some or offend others, but who can argue with the purity of their hearts? Such affections should always eclipse hatred and suppression, no matter where it occurs, even in as conservative a place as the tight Orthodox community in North London. Watch the trailer.