Sebastián Lelio (director), Danny Cohen (cinematographer), Nathan Nugent (editor)
Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams, Alessandro Nivola (cast)
Adapted from the Naomi Alderman novel Disobedence by Sebastián Lelio and Rebecca Lenkiewicz
September 10, 2017 (TIFF)
Sebastián Lelio made two films this year about women being denied access to the formal grieving process of their society. In A Fantastic Woman, Daniella Vega plays Marina, a trans woman who is prevented from attending her boyfriend’s funeral by his violently transphobic family. In Disobedience, Rachel Weisz plays a queer Jewish woman who is discouraged from attending the funeral of her father by influential members of the local Orthodox community. In making two such thematically similar films, Lelio invites comparison—and in the case of A Fantastic Woman and Disobedience, I think the films are meant to be seen as companion pieces. (Yes, that does means you should go read my review of A Fantastic Woman!)
Like Lelio’s other films, Disobedience is a slow-burning character study that erupts only occasionally with violent emotion. Rather than focus on just Rachel Weisz’s Ronit, who is returning to the community of her youth after decades of necessary separation, Lelio expands the scope to include her childhood best friends Esti (Rachel McAdams) and Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), who have married each other in her absence. Also like A Fantastic Woman, Disobedience is confined to a one week span immediately after a death—in this case, it takes place while the family sits shiva and works out the details of the newly deceased Rabbi Krushka’s will.
While in A Fantastic Woman a death ruptures a couple’s created world-of-two to devastating emotional effects, in Disobedience, Krushka’s death forces his daughter back into a world she both left and was rejected from. Ronit is somewhat disparagingly called a “New York woman” by the women in the tightly-knit, Orthodox London community she returns to. She’s single and lives alone, supporting herself as a photographer of some renown. She maintains her Jewish identity but has broken with the Orthodox traditions she was raised in. Her return is met with cold shoulders and snide courtesies—excepting Esti and Dovid, who are cautiously happy to see her.
The atmosphere in Disobedience is cramped. People are stuffed into overfull rooms for awkward dinners, sitting shoulder to shoulder in the narrow tiered benches of the local synagogue, walking the blue-black streets of their community while being watched, and huddled in back alleys and dead ends for every hushed conversation or assignation. Esti and Dovid’s home might seem airy or charming in another film, but in Disobedience the camera focuses on the angled, too-short ceilings of the attic guest room, the narrowness of hallways, the steepness of the stairs. Rabbi Krushka’s home, which is much larger than theirs, still manages to seem small. There is a whole huge ring of keys that Ronit and Dovid borrow so that she can collect some mementos; locked doors are everywhere in Krushka’s home. In his last years, Krushka’s life retreated to the first floor, the living room made up as a home care apartment. When Ronit and Dovid visit, his sheets are still stained with his blood.
This is all a neat mirror of human relationships in Disobedience. Every interaction is laden with awkward, often unspoken history. We learn the past through implication and accusation, mainly. The relationships between Ronit, Dovid, and Esti are never fully laid out for us, but we do know that Dovid was Krushka’s protégé, the adopted son he always wanted; that Ronit and Esti were childhood best friends, with Dovid as their third, always kept at a distance due to the community’s strict gender norms; and that Ronit was effectively forced to flee the community after Ronit and Esti’s romantic relationship was discovered.
Ronit is unhappily understanding of Dovid and Esti’s marriage. It’s a momentary shock to her that Esti, a lesbian, would marry Dovid, but she knows exactly how such a thing would be arranged. A straight marriage with upstanding Dovid redeems her for the community and does him credit as the man who got her to behave properly again. The community’s disapproval of Ronit—who left rather than be married off to some other Dovid—is quietly ceaseless and they use their approval of the reformed Esti to wound. It’s a knife that cuts, but not deeply. Ronit has put the community behind her; what hurts her worse is the sense that her father never loved her, and, twin grief to her father’s passing, the sense that Esti has never loved herself.
The conflict that Ronit’s return stirs up runs along the same track as the community’s grief over Krushka’s passing. There is a cold spot inside her, in the shape of her distant father; there is likewise a cold spot in the community, the centre having dropped out of their synagogue after the loss of a charismatic leader. Ronit and Esti reconcile while Esti and Dovid fall out; this too is paralleled in the community, as the community comes together around Dovid as their new leader, even as he reassesses his place. It is, all of it—fights over property and propriety, two kinds of awkward sex (Ronit and Esti’s has all the sensuality that Esti and Dovid’s lacks but there is… a lot of spit?)—about grief.
Disobedience doesn’t come to a neat resolution, because grief is not like that. You don’t, in the immediate aftermath of a death, settle everything into a new and complete order. You bury, burn, or inter a body. You honour their being and secure them a place in your memories. You reassure yourself of the right order of things, moving on even as you are profoundly changed. For Ronit, Esti, and Dovid, Krushka’s death is difficult, but it is the fulcrum that allows each of them to find a better understanding of themselves, the ways that a community loves and hurts with the same act, and ultimately, the vital importance of disobedience.