“Disobedience” (2017) – The Movie that Stirs Hearts and Celebrates Differences



Disobedience (2017) movie poster


When this quaint little movie debuted at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, one wonders why it didn’t pick up a theatre release deal until this year. I was very fortunate to be able to experience it now that it has finally been released.

In “Disobedience”, Ronit (Rachel Weisz) returns from New York, where her designated new home is, to London after receiving news of her father’s death. Her return reignites memories of her exile from the community by her own father Rav Krushka, a much revered Rabi in an Orthodox Jewish community, as well as deep-seated yearning for her childhood lover, Esti (Rachel McAdams) who is now married to her best friend Dovid (Alessandro Nivola) – none other than Rav Krushka’s favourite disciple.

The experience of watching this movie was like life imitating art, and I was relieved by the emancipation of my mounting anticipation for the movie known as “the one with two famous Rachels”. What kind of magic will the two accomplished, straight actresses (straight until proven otherwise, at least) – with an eye for beauty in the human condition bring to a story about the LGBT community? Likewise with Emma Stone’s portrayal of Billy Jean King in “Battle of the Sexes” and Cate Blanchett in “Carol”, the advent of highly acclaimed actresses taking on well-written LGBT roles is most definitely a noteworthy milestone for the community. This is a fact made significant by a previously held stigma in the film industry, whereby signing up to play gay characters was considered a career-ending prospect.

“Disobedience” is a passion project by Academy Award winning actress Rachel Weisz. She is fascinated and mesmerized by the original novel’s juxtaposition of repressed queer women in an Orthodox Jewish community,  that she *had* to adapt it to the big screen. With a screenplay by the brilliant duo of Sebastian Lelio (invigorated by his Academy Award win for best foreign film “A Fantastic Woman”, a thoughtful portrayal of a transgender woman reeling from loss of love) and Rebecca Lenkiewicz, Rachel also serves as the movie’s producer – and the first movie to be released by her production company.

There is always treasure to be found in a tale where actors have to find subtle ways of communication that transcend their obstacles. Rachel Weisz, with her soulful, expressive eyes, has found the perfect partner in Academy Award nominee Rachel McAdams (who gives a stunningly nuanced performance that belies her usual, perky typecasted characters) and they are well complimented by an almost unrecognizable and sublime Alessandro Nivola as Dovid.

Like in the modern lesbian classic “Imagine Me and You”, Dovid is the movie’s Hector equivalent – a gentle, kind man who has found himself caught in the midst of his lovely but repressed wife’s dilemma. Sometimes, we just want to give these men a big hug for being so supportive despite being caught in the unfortunate crossfire, which often results from repression in the LGBT community.

It was certainly a thrill to experience Naomi Alderman’s novel fleshed out by sensitive and beautiful performances by its brilliant leads. The movie blossoms under the guidance of director Sebastian Lelio, whose keen and compassionate eye deftly brings us a three dimensional view of North London’s Orthodox Jewish community – which could, in the wrong hands, been portrayed as a gloomy (or even villainous) backdrop to the lead character’s burgeoning sensuality and yearning for emancipation.

While partly setting up as the premise for the characters’ obstacles in the story, the movie also wonderfully contrasts the community’s initial hostility with a celebration of their daily lives and practices, shown lovingly throughout the film and punctuated with a sense of urgency via an impassioned, impromptu religion-inspired speech by Dovid towards the end of the film. The speech shows Dovid finally understanding the meaning of freedom of choice, which was taught by Rav Krushka before his demise at the start of the movie.

Before I neglect the overt element of burgeoning sexuality, it is interesting to note that reviewers who watched the film often cited the famous sex scene “where one famous Rachel spits into the mouth of another famous Rachel” – And in a way, I was glad to have gone to the movies with no previous knowledge of such a scene, and it allowed for a complete experience of the character’s gradual build up of sexual tension, culminating in Esti’s sexual liberation (the key moment in the movie, so much so that Rachel Weisz opted to edit out Ronit’s orgasm in the movie so as to allow Esti to fully own the moment).

Undoubtedly, the movie did have a push pull effect of Esti’s fierce yearning for Ronit as well as her desire to hold onto a life she grew dear to. This possibly influenced the ending, which I must admit, made me confused and “sick in the head” (to quote Esti) for a few days before fully grasping the beauty of its open-endedness. But alas, we do have the production team to thank for opting for a decidedly more optimistic ending for the big screen adaptation. The movie certainly left me wanting more – the way Esti feels about Ronit long after she leaves on that jetplane. Maybe it’s time she bought that plane ticket too.

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Rachael Wisenow

If I wasn't wise before, here's my path to redemption. One sneaky article at a time with a side of Burgerlab fries.

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