Why this film about Jewish lesbians wasn’t playing in more major theaters in Los Angeles I will never understand. Marking Sebastian Lelio’s second queer film in the last two years, Disobedience stars Rachel Weisz and my rom-com queen Rachel McAdams as Ronit and Esti respectively as they hide and act out their sexual tension in the Orthodox Jewish community they grew up in. As with many films that deal with representing a marginalized group, it’s always essential to me to seek out “authenticity” and that’s definitely something to grapple with when viewing Disobedience.
- spoilers ahead -
The film’s start is actually quite similar to Lelio’s A Fantastic Woman - the death of an old man triggers the events of the film, and in this case, it’s Ronit’s father who was a powerful Rabbi in her childhood Jewish community. Ronit comes home, to everyone’s dismay, just to find out that her two childhood BFFs (Esti and Dovid) have since gotten married. The tensions between all three of them are very interesting to witness; Ronit’s father favored Dovid her whole life because he’s a man, Ronit and Esti have secretly been together since they were kids, and in the present day, Esti and Dovid are in a bland, sparkle-less marriage. Ronit’s decision to leave the community likely jumpstarted Esti’s decision to fully commit to the duties expected of an Orthodox Jewish woman. But what happens when Ronit comes back is a lot of breathy stolen glances, a controversial sex scene, and a maybe underdeveloped critique of conservative Orthodox Judaism.
Focusing on that third bit for a second, this movie portrays a community that’s not often seen in media like this. The only other film I can think of off the top of my head is the 2017 documentary One of Us that centers several different people leaving Brooklyn’s Hasidic Jewish community. Both films are nuanced in the ways they portray their communities and particularly with Disobedience, it’s interesting to note that the original author stopped being a practicing Jew over the course of writing the book. Much like how the setting of a Catholic-dominant Boston served as a looming and informing presence in Spotlight, the Jewish community depicted here is just as important as Ronit and Esti’s relationship. You can see it not just in the narrative but in the editing and cinematography as well.
But what’s been getting the most media attention about Disobedience is of course the tension-filled romance between the two principal characters. The movie is essentially a bell curve consisting of a rather slow build up and a decent ending that literally climaxes with the aforementioned sex scene. Ever since the premiere of Blue is the Warmest Color in 2013 to The Handmaiden in 2016 and beyond, the discussion surrounding objectified lesbian sex from the male gaze in film has hit the forefront (although this is nothing new in the realm of film theory and discourse). Rachel Weisz, also a producer on Disobedience, stated her intention in mindfully approaching this scene - they methodically crafted this scene to make it seem not exploitative but still erotic (as the film essentially hinges on this culmination of the characters’ sexual tension). So then does the film follow in the tradition of its predecessors? See for yourself because I’m not really sure.
Disobedience is plenty melodramatic and definitely slow. And while one would think all the focus would be on Ronit and Esti, the film still seems to place heavy importance on Dovid. There is a scene in the second half in which Esti runs away and is implied to be deliberating suicide upon having her relationship with Ronit exposed. And boy oh boy was I glad that the film went in a different direction, albeit towards Dovid. Esti instead decides to stand her ground and ask Dovid for her freedom (which, fine, but also, just leave him on your own, girl!). He says yes, they all hug, smooches everywhere. From Ronit’s ostrazication to Esti’s freedom, Disobedience manages to juggle all the different elements of the film and deliver an interesting film about Jewish British lesbians!