Spoilers for Disobedience ahead.
This year’s Toronto Film Festival has been heavy on biopics (The Current War, Borg/McEnroe) and not nearly heavy enough on steamy romances. Very thankfully, that all changed today with the welcome infusion of Disobedience, a beautifully tense tale of forbidden love in a small Orthodox Jewish community in north London, between two best friends from girlhood, played by Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams.
The Rachel-on-Rachel action I know you’re dying to hear about is en fuego, but first we have to talk about the buildup, because none of this works without it. In this adaptation of British author Naomi Alderman’s award-winning 2006 debut novel of the same name — told through touch and silent looks and palpable longing by Chilean director Sebastián Lelio (Gloria) — Weisz plays Ronit, the only surviving daughter of an Orthodox rabbi, who upon his death, returns to the community she left behind many years ago. Ronit has been living in Manhattan as a photographer. She smokes, she dresses casually, and the night she finds out the news, goes to a bar, gets drunk, and has wrenching, grief-stricken sex in a bathroom with an unidentified man.
The moment she shows up, unannounced, at her father’s Shiva says everything about her relationship to the community. “We weren’t expecting you,” says the man in a beard and yarmulke who opens the door, and stands outside with Ronit, having the kind of halting exchange of people sharing a mutual pain, but having lost a trust between them, for so long that it seems as if Ronit may have to leave before entering. He is Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), the dead Rav’s most dedicated disciple, and, it turns out, one of Ronit’s two best friends before she up and disappeared one day.
The Shiva is an icy place for Ronit, clearly the only person there who’s no longer practicing, but Dovid’s affection for his old friend soon warms it up. As they chat in the kitchen, Ronit learns that he’s gotten married to, she assumes, one of the 20 interchangeable traditionalists in the living room. As she’s poking fun at him, she discovers it’s actually to the one other person in the house with whom she’s obviously most familiar, Esti (Rachel McAdams), the third member of their childhood friend group who’s now a schoolteacher at an Orthodox school. The shock Ronit registers at the pairing suggests that there was perhaps a time when she assumed Esti wouldn’t follow a traditional path.
It is decided that Ronit will stay with Dovid and Esti as she pays honor to her father and wraps up the details of his life. The road is not easy; there is the guilt of having not fulfilled a filial duty to be there for him as he suffered, even if she didn’t know, and the blow of finding out she wasn’t mentioned in his will. Through it, we see glimpses into Dovid and Esti’s marital life. There is passion and romantic desire between them — everyone in this film, but particularly Nivola, with the hardest part in the movie, brings a quiet humanity to this work — but Esti also stares at the wall when they have sex, as appears routine every Friday night.
All along, Esti has been showing signs of perhaps not totally conforming. At the dinner table with another rabbi’s family, she questions the necessity of a woman sacrificing her history to take up her husband’s name. Then one day, while helping Ronit run one of the many errands of grieving, they kiss. It is at once tender and urgent, the passion of two people drinking each other in as if discovering water after a long and lonely existence of being parched.
I cannot emphasize how respectful and immersive a portrait this movie is, considering that only a portion of the main creative team is Jewish. (Weisz, who’s a producer, and Nivola both come from families who escaped the Nazis — though it does take a while to buy any of these movie stars as leading simple lives of piety.) This isn’t a cliché indictment of religious insularity, or the tale of a wife escaping her controlling husband or loveless marriage. Instead, it is simply the story of the many forms love can take, and the way that hard choices between who you are and what you know can stand in the way of its fulfillment.
Those intimate kisses clearly are not their first. The two women were caught together once as teens, a fact that, we soon find out, the entire community knows. The stakes of being found out once again are immense: How could Esti be allowed to educate children once her proclivities are known? How could Dovid replace the Rav as the community’s leader if he can’t even keep his own house in order?
Unable to be apart but unable to be together in public or at home, they escape to a hotel, where that mind-blowing meeting of the Rachels can finally be released. The two drink each other in again, but this time with unhindered relish, McAdams’s Esti groaning as Weisz’s Ronit undoes the crotch of her bodysuit with her teeth, Esti searching every contour of Ronit’s mouth with her tongue, then the ecstasy as they each reach inside the other’s underpants. They are simultaneously ravenous and exquisitely thorough. Though the moment almost everyone will be talking about will be when Weisz straddles McAdams and gently spits into her mouth, as McAdams eagerly receives it and asks for more, and more again.
Is it graphic? Yes. Is it sexy and gorgeous? Yes, again. Is it a tad male-gaze-y? Sure, but also incredibly erotic to watch as a woman. Most of all, though, it’s moving, and very different from the coming-of-age lesbian scenes of Blue Is the Warmest Color and The Handmaiden. Here are two grown women who’ve done this before and are well past the discovery phase. Their only desire is to give pleasure to and receive it from one another, and they’ve been stymied for so long by circumstances: Esti because she cannot be who she is if she wishes to retain the life she’s built, and Ronit because the woman she loves cannot make the same choices that she has.
There is plenty more movie to come, including a searing speech at temple from Nivola, who, again, is incredible in a high-wire act that never makes him come across as a cuckold or a fool. But once Esti and Ronit step out of that hotel room, about two-thirds of the way through the movie, it begins to feel that what’s really at stake is not the loss of community or the loss of family, but the fact that these two magnificent women may never get another moment of being naked and spitting in each other’s mouths again.