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Religion and Romance Collide in Well-Acted if Challenging Disobedience

This stylish and evocative drama examines crises of faith and of the heart, but winds up more than just a lurid or scandalous tale of forbidden love.
By Todd Jorgenson |

The average person won’t directly relate to a passionate love affair involving Orthodox Jewish lesbians in London, yet Disobedience succeeds because it draws outsiders into its world.

This stylish and evocative drama examines crises of faith and of the heart, but winds up more than just a lurid or scandalous tale of forbidden romance.

Instead, the English-language debut of Chilean director Sebastian Lelio (A Fantastic Woman) — bolstered by a pair of powerhouse performances — is both progressive and provocative in the way it probes the desire to break free from a predetermined path.

As the film opens, New York photographer Ronit (Rachel Weisz) returns to the Orthodox Jewish community where she grew up to mourn the death of her rabbi father (Anton Lesser).

The occasion also allows her to reconnect with childhood friends Esti (Rachel McAdams) and Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), who have since gotten married — to Ronit’s surprise. The couple invites Ronit to stay at their home while she’s in town, with Dovid issuing a warning that reflects his unease: “It’s important that this week is conducted with honor.”

On cue, the reunion between Ronit and Esti impulsively sparks taboo desires that each of them repressed for years. As they decide how to proceed in the face of public embarrassment and potential castigation, Dovid becomes caught in the middle.

The screenplay by Lelio and Rebecca Lenkiewicz (Ida), adapted from a novel by British writer Naomi Alderman, provides generous insight into cultural and spiritual customs, and offers an intriguing perspective on how their patriarchal basis seems outdated in the 21st century.

Weisz and McAdams each demonstrate a balance of strength and vulnerability in their committed portrayals, generating sympathy through strong-willed characters whose emotions remain largely muted and internalized. Their audacious love scene might attract eyeballs, but their ability to subtly tug at the heartstrings is more captivating.

Meanwhile, the film’s rich emotional texture and character-driven approach doesn’t produce any clear-cut heroes or villains, nor does it take cheap shots at organized religion.

Disobedience is deliberately paced and its energy tends to lag in the second half. However, amid its familiar love-triangle structure, the film audaciously challenges beliefs, freedoms, and preconceived notions regardless of ideological background.

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