Disobedience review

It’s easy to remember Rachel McAdams’ most iconic performance, Regina George in Mean Girls, as little more than the ruthlessly hilarious one-liners and cutting GIF-worthy glances on the surface. But there’s so much more bubbling underneath in her performance that makes it iconic. McAdams is a master of presenting a confident, assured front while meaning or feeling something entirely different. The gulf between what she says and what she wants gets played for laughs in Mean Girls, but in her latest film, Sebastian Lelio’s Disobedience, it’s played for tension and tragedy.

As Esti Kuperman, the devoted wife of Rabbi Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), we first meet her as she tends to the needs of guests at a Shiva for the community’s recently passed rabbi. She’s playing the part masterfully – and that’s not a commentary on McAdams, it’s referring to Esti. Her responsiveness to the mourning of the guests proceeds by the book, containing enough gusto to fulfill her duties and avoid suspicion but not an ounce more. When she mechanically recites the traditional Hebrew greeting “may you live a long life,” there’s a lifetime of pain and repression that becomes immediately palpable.

She directs the phrase at Rachel Weisz’s Ronit, the departed rabbi’s estranged daughter viewed with heretical suspicion by their tight-knit Orthodox Jewish community in London. Ever the prodigal daughter, Ronit fled their stringent doctrinarian confines to lead a libertine life in New York. Her return spurs many a disapproving glance from the provincially-minded congregants but a slightly more welcoming one from Esti. As Disobedience plays out, and Ronit gets reacquainted with her childhood friend, the reason becomes more apparent.

Ronit’s arrival prompts Esti to reexamine a lifetime of choices that are supposed to bring her contentment and fulfillment but have only served to leave her feeling trapped. “Women take their husband’s name,” Esti notes, “and their history is gone.” She sees marriage as an institutional obligation, a duty most accurately summed up by she and Dovid’s sexual habits: routinely and dispassionately scheduled for Friday evenings. She teaches girls at the community’s religious school, telling herself that she’s empowering them all while knowing they will grow up to perpetuate the same patriarchal system that limits her autonomy. It also reawakens her desire to follow her sexual urges and preferences more honestly, a road which leads her right back to Ronit.

It might seem easy to reduce Disobedience to a logline – the Orthodox Jewish lesbian movie – but Lelio never lets the novelty of the concept overpower the rich human drama at the heart of the film. Details such as Esti wearing a wig in public to hide her hair from view are highly specific to the religious community put on display in the film. But her struggle to live authentically and express herself carries resonance for any women stuck in situations where men curtail their freedom to assert dominance. What Esti faces in religious doctrine, others face in social norms and attitudes.

While Esti relishes her covert rebellion against her friends and neighbors, Ronit has a converse experience. Her return to the fold, fraught with nerves though it might be, makes her think twice about her rudderless behavior. As simple-minded as Ronit finds the community that raised her, she begins to understand the value of how gathering around a series of shared traditions can form lasting bonds. She shunned that and now returns to find herself written out of her father’s will and not given so much as a mention in his obituary.

Choices have consequences, especially ones that prioritize individual needs over collective obligations. Ronit finds this out immediately upon reentry, but Esti only gradually comes to the realization as her secret romance unfolds. Any decision that moves her towards greater autonomy undermines Dovid as he begins his stewardship over the community. Acting independently, living openly or leaving would destroy his ministry.

The stakes are high, yet Disobedience never slips into easy melodrama. Lelio focuses far more on the non-verbal language of affection and repulsion than any grand speeches or gestures. Lucky for him, he’s got fluent speakers in the art of the gaze with McAdams, Weisz and Nivola. Lelio’s script, adapted from Naomi Alderman’s novel with Rebecca Lenkiewicz, gives them plenty to work with. But the performers take the long leash and run with it in exciting directions. The film lives in Weisz’s frightened glances seeking permanence and McAdams’ glistening eyes once she remembers transgression is a choice available to her. We’ve come to take the former for granted and scarcely recognize the latter at all. Hopefully this movie changes both. If filmmakers can’t find it within themselves to let Rachel McAdams time travel along with her on-screen husbands, at least recognize her as a modern master of the stare.

/Film rating: 8.5 out of 10

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About the Author

Marshall's work has been featured on FSR, LWL, Bright Wall/Dark Room, Christian Science Monitor, Vague Visages & Movie Mezzanine. He keeps going through it because he needs the eggs.