Much like Sebastian Lelio’s Oscar-winning film A Fantastic Woman, his followup Disobedience is about free will, and the power that comes with being oneself. The setting is very different, though; a restrictive Orthodox Jewish community where one would not expect intense sexual passions to burn, and yet it smolders with the intense performances of stars Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams.
Just because those passions are there does not mean it can be allowed to flourish. McAdams plays Esti Kuperman, who has built a life for herself within this stringent sect, married to Rabbi Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), a clear choice to take over as the rav (the most respected Rabbi) now that his predecessor has died. At his funeral Esti is quiet, respectful; you’d barely notice her just as you’d barely notice all of the women there. It’s like they blend into the drab scenery only to emerge when the men need something.
All of that changes with the sudden arrival of Ronit (Weisz), and it’s like someone cracked open a window in a dusty attic. With her long flowing locks, a far cry from the sheitel wigs worn by the other women, Ronit makes for a striking image. Not that the other guests seem to appreciate it much. When one says to her “We never thought we’d see you again” you get the impression they really meant “You were never supposed to come back.” That much is true. Ronit fled the restrictive London community for a life in New York as a photographer, but has returned because the deceased was her father. Or were there other reasons? It isn’t long before we learn that Ronit, Dovid, and Esti were close friends until an indiscretion drove them apart and drove Ronit far away. She’s stunned to learn Dovid and Esti are married. Why stunned?
Disobedience is a movie of tiny moments with big implications. A subtle glance between Esti and Ronit reveals more than just an awkward reunion between old friends. Ronit’s arrival shakes up the status quo in Dovid’s home, in which he has allowed her to stay, and throws everything out of balance. Seeing Ronit again has awoken something within Esti. She begins to re-examine not only her life, but the life of a woman in this male-dominated Orthodox society. Soon, she and Ronit are sneaking off and talking like old friends. The old familiarities return, there’s a gentle touch, a laugh, a kiss, then much more. Esti finds the romance and steaming hot sex she’s missing from her boring, emotionless marriage, but is she willing to give up everything she’s ever known for that?
Lelio builds up the sexual tension between Esti and Ronit in such subtle ways that for a time you might think they’ll stay just as friends. The openness of their conversation with one another would be enough of an attraction to possibly lure Esti away from the confined lifestyle she finds herself in, so that you don’t even need to add the physical element. But when their mutual attraction becomes too wild to be checked, Esti and Ronit don’t hold back and neither does Lelio in depicting it, to a shocking degree. This is a much hotter film than its understated look and tone would suggest.
The consequences of Ronit and Esti’s actions are treated with the proper amount of respect, and never smoothed over to make for easily solvable drama. Each woman begins to see the benefits of the life they gave up. Esti sees that sometimes she must makes choices for herself rather than to appease a community that devalues women, while Ronit is reminded that some traditions are worth keeping. When their relationship is discovered, it puts Dovid’s leadership at risk. How can be a respected elder when he can’t even keep his home in order?
Disobedience makes a seductive and impassioned case for greater sexual freedom and female autonomy, but never devalues those who have chosen a different path. Timely and well-told with two amazing performances by Weisz and McAdams, it makes for one of the year’s best dramas and shouldn’t be overlooked.