The lesbian Orthodox drama Disobedience starts with a kind of challenge. An elderly British Orthodox rabbi — the most respected kind, a rav — played by Anton Lesser with fun Olivier cadences, turns away from the Ark and tells his rapt congregation (bearded men down front, bewigged women in the rafters) that humans, unlike angels and demons, are “free to choose.” Then he keels over, dead, which doesn’t look like a choice. But his words nonetheless hang over the film. Rachel Weisz plays the rav’s estranged daughter, Ronit, who is told of his death while in New York photographing an old man covered with tattoos (you shall not incise any marks on yourself); promptly has sex in a bathroom stall (you shall not drunkenly fornicate with strangers in loos); and goes ice-skating (the Torah is silent on ice-skating, except on the Sabbath). Then Ronit returns to London to help bury her dad, not expecting to run promptly into her old lesbian lover, Esti.
It turns out that Esti (Rachel McAdams) hasn’t just remained within the Orthodox fold but has married Ronit’s old chum and the rav’s most dedicated disciple, Dovid (Alessandro Nivola). This creates all manner of crosscurrents. First, the bearded men and bewigged women are taken aback by Ronit’s mere presence. (They say, “May you live a long life,” which roughly translates as, “May you live somewhere far away from me, you godless slut.”) Dovid, though more welcoming, is antsy. It turns out that many in the community knew of Esti’s un-Orthodox sexual appetites but appreciated that she sought to curb them with a traditional marriage to a man as frum as they come. But can Esti withstand temptation? One look at McAdams’s ashen face and you know she’s farklempt. Anyway, if she doesn’t succumb, there’s no movie.
Disobedience isn’t packed with surprises, but that’s not why you go to a movie like this. You go to watch humans with wayward emotions labor to make peace with (or opt to war against) a formal, ritualized way of life. You go to see them argue over such words as “freedom” and “choice.” You go to see the sex scenes — and then to be ashamed for thinking in such sexist terms and to atone publicly in what has become a familiar ritual. The love scenes are above all romantic. Both women have been lost, Esti with her dutiful sexual service and Ronit with her reflexive but joyless assertions of freedom. They long for connection.
The Chilean director, Sebastián Lelio, is a specialist in portraying longings for connection that go against the prevailing orthodoxy. His radiant Gloria centered on a 58-year-old divorced woman’s unapologetic search for sexual fulfillment. His Oscar-winning A Fantastic Woman was unorthodox even in its transgender title character. Disobedience might be his stiffest film, but its stiffness is meant to reinforce the milieu. As depictions of fundamentalists go, this one is relatively sunny: These Orthodox are not as egregiously hostile toward those who leave the fold as, say, the Hasidim are. But their quiet judgments are nearly as lacerating. If nothing else, everyone is always watching everyone else for signs of nonconformity.
Her character wilting under those judgments, McAdams does a fine job of submerging her buoyant personality, but she’s hurt by the spareness of the script, which doesn’t capture the acid observations of the character in Naomi Alderman’s novel. A bigger change from the novel is Dovid, whom Alderman makes a schlemiel, but as played by Nivola is — by the standards of Orthodox Jewish males — like vintage Tom Selleck crossed with vintage Burt Reynolds. If Esti isn’t into him, she must be really gay. I think Nivola would make a great rebbe. He even brings off one of those movie-ish scenes where the character sets aside a prepared text and speaks from the heart.
Weisz continues to work miracles. She captures Ronit’s divided existence in every gesture and expression, whether rending a garment at a skating rink or donning a leather skirt for a Shabbes dinner while looking both guilty and, in an impish, little-girl way, determined. It’s a bit of a letdown when Ronit becomes more passive, and Esti and Dovid turn out to be the movie’s dramatic fulcrum. What really left me farblondzhet was the resolution, which isn’t just different from the novel’s but in some ways opposed to it. (What — so I’m not supposed to read the novel? It’s acclaimed!) I suppose that this less conservative finale can be taken as an exercise of the filmmakers’ freedom to choose, and of an even higher level of disobedience.
*This article appears in the April 30, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!