This one was always going to be personal.
Reviewers are supposed to step back, look, react to a film as fairly any audience would. This won’t be possible this time, and that is Disobedience’s design, and triumph.
Commencing with the sudden death of a London Jewish Orthodox Rabbi as he delivers what appears to be his weekly D’var Torah (commentary relating to a section of the Five Books of Moses ie Old Testament), news soon reaches his long-estranged and only child (Rachel Weisz) across the Atlantic. Returning to her childhood home, Ronit reunites with her adolescent friends Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), the deceased patriarch’s evident successor, and his now wife Esti (Rachel McAdams), with whom Ronit shared a contentious relationship central to her lengthy absence.
Disobedience has the rare dramatic integrity to almost wholly situate us within this relatively insular community without causing itself to explain or exposit that which will be roundly unfamiliar to many audiences. As simple a gesture as Ronit tearing her clothes in the opening frames will have especial significance to those of particular backgrounds viewing this film, though Director Sebastian Lelio wisely lets the audience infer that which is best conveyed not so greatly by the action itself but by Weisz’s pained expression.
Weisz’s turn is one element of the several consummate performances without which Disobedience would not resonate so strongly. Lelio’s latest as rendered will however be that much more relatable and emphatic for those intrinsically familiar with the traditions depicted and more so for those conscious of the issues which it depicts not unique yet nevertheless manifestly distinct within Jewish communities such as this one, namely that of the status of LGBT members, their expression and specifically that as regards female members of like communities.
This is not to say that the immersion within this place will not emanate more broadly, far from it, simply that it will be that much more palpable for those with significant exposure to an environment of this character and the subtle theological importance of even apparently minor actions which Lelio either assumes will be evident to those accustomed or otherwise relies, for the most part reliably so, on his stars in their manner and expression to impart.
Discussions of a get (relating to a Jewish marriage) or the simple viewing of a freshly-dug grave and pile of dirt prior to a ritual consecration absent literal explanations for these particular customs are but two traditions bearing intrinsic and lesser-known significance, the accounts of which are here subverted for more greatly universalistic dramatic and thematically powerful ends. The particular depiction of the underlying emphases of this latter tradition and in a manner unlike how it would typically be fulfilled is one of the film’s cleverer innovations, along with the heavily symbolic though thankfully not overstated use of a sheitel, the wig worn by some Orthodox Jewish women.
One alternately overstated piece of symbolism is the much-discussed use of The Cure’s ‘Lovesong’ which has some chosen lyrics (“However far away I will always love you, however long I stay I will always love you”) during one nevertheless touching sequence. Pounding with the film’s titular action as Disobedience’s leading pair reckon with each other only to remind themselves of traditional prohibitions in light of the mourning period that could otherwise have seen them dancing with greater animation, this is one of those instances which does not translate so greatly for those less familiar with these rituals or reactions that for many viewers will remain instinctive.
A like moment occurs at a key crux in the film and is delivered by the characters’ irregular use of Hebrew. One saying something as simple as shalom to the other, a term typically taken to mean hello but which also translates to ‘goodbye’ and ‘peace’ here abounds with multiple connotations as the conflation of each reasonable interpretation signifies one character seeing another in a whole new light. An earlier use of the language where Ronit sings ‘David Melech Yisrael’ to Dovid, a well-known Jewish song and one they used to sing as children, similarly and near imperceptibly imparts a crucial element of the childhood dynamic between the young man and two women which translates all too greatly to their current predicament
Having said this, you don’t need an even elementary understanding of Hebrew to figure or empathise with the emotive layers littered throughout, and save one arguably contentious scriptural reading, which occurs in of all things the opening scene, the particular religious traditions and that customarily central to this strictly Orthodox community are very well evinced.
Importantly, Disobedience relates the self-actualisation and reckoning of two persons, and to a lesser extent a third’s, with their faith. One, moving towards it, the other, away, and the third experiencing a crisis thereof, create together a welcomely novel dynamic centred on subjects all too infrequently explored on film and in mainstream cinema to boot. As good as Weisz is, and she is reliably remarkable, she is no match for the actress with the most difficult role who is finally getting due recognition and parts requisite to her dramatic capabilities.
McAdams is engrossingly powerful in her role, conveying her conflicted character with a raw emotiveness whenever she adopts Esti’s restrained visage or later entreaties; further compounding it all with an unusually sensitive sex scene absent the gratuitous gaze that is regretfully a staple of it’s ilk. A sequence which near matches this belongs however to Nivola. Later expounding on a tenet central to modern and ancient Jewry, it is here conveyed in a more universally relatable dramatic context and emerges as one of the film’s most memorable boiling points.
Experiencing some issues with pacing, notably including when a number of flashpoints emerge over a dinner conversation which had hitherto been teased subtly and distinctly, that manifestly flawed within Disobedience is few and far between. In large part due to well-cast leads, this drama channels that both particular and ubiquitous to deliver as much a resonant parable about a particular community as an account of that ever-pervasive, so much of which can and will compel regardless of any individual background, faith or lack thereof.
Disobedience is in cinemas now
* Awarded ‘Best Review of an International Film’ (2018) by the Australian Film Critics Association