“Disobedience” was part of the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center’s Spectrum Film Festival two weeks ago, and this Friday, May 18, it screens again. The film stars Rachel Weisz as Ronit and Rachel McAdams as Esti, and tracks their reignited romance when Ronit returns to the Orthodox Jewish community in London where she was raised. The title of the film, based on the novel by Naomi Alderman, reflects the community’s rejection of lesbian love.
“Disobedience” is the first English-language film for Chilean director Sebastián Lelio, whose Spanish film “A Fantastic Woman,” about a transsexual, won the 2017 Best Foreign Film Oscar. The Film Center has also screened Leilo’s “Gloria,” about a middle-aged woman seeking sexual liberation. Leilo is a former Orthodox Jew who grew up in the section of London where “Disobedience” takes place.
Viewers meet Ronit in New York, where she works as a photographer, while Esti has remained in London and marries Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), their childhood best friend. Ronit’s father, Rav (Rabbi) Krushka (Anton Lesser), is killed while giving a speech to the congregation about human freedom. His death deeply affects Ronit, who grieves by tearing her clothes, a traditional Orthodox practice, getting drunk, having sex, and ice skating. She heads back to London to attend memorial services for her father. Her uncle Moshe (Allan Corduner), as well as the rest of the congregation, is not happy to see her because of her rejection of Orthodox Jewish ways. Although Ronit did not know about her father’s illness, Moshe faults her for not coming to take care of him.
At first, Dovid and Esti are uncomfortable with Ronit’s return, but they invite her to stay with them. Both are teachers in Orthodox educational settings, and the film shows them in their classrooms, reflecting their religious commitment. Their marriage is traditional, with Esti wearing a wig and the couple having sex on the Shabbat (Sabbath), an Orthodox practice. At a Shabbat dinner, Ronit is outspoken in her criticism of Orthodox ways, and announces she wants to sell the family house, but her uncle informs her that her father has left it to the synagogue. She also discovers that her father’s obituary says he was childless. When she visits her childhood home with Esti, her former lover kisses her, and their relationship resumes. A synagogue couple catches them kissing and files a formal complaint with Esti’s headmistress.
At the same time that Ronit’s and Esti’s affair develops, tensions rise with synagogue elders, as well as Dovid, who is in line to replace Rav Krushka. As the film reaches its climax, the Rav’s sermon on freedom is revisited, and its conflicts are resolved in unexpected ways.
“Disobedience” is a powerful film, with strong performances by Weisz, McAdams, and Nivola. Beautifully rendered religious songs accompany the ceremonies related to the Rav’s death. The director has captured the Orthodox community with sympathy and understanding, while also giving credit to Ronit’s choice in rejecting it.
Information and tickets for “Disobedience” and other Film Center screenings are available at mvfilmsociety.com.