“Disobedience” – After zero contact with her family for years and years, Ronit (Rachel Weisz) returns to England under gloomy, gray skies to attend her father’s funeral. Almost everyone treats Ronit with strange, icy disdain and distance, except for her old friend Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), as she wanders through his home during shiva, a time of mourning.
Esti (Rachel McAdams) greets Ronit as well, but not warmly. Instead of a hug or embrace, she looks at Ronit and – with a cadence of an overworked Walmart greeter at the end of a 12-hour shift – recites, “May you live a long life.”
Formalities over feelings.
While Ronit has been away, much to her surprise, Dovid and Esti are now married, and she asks if they are happy.
Dovid replies, “Yes, we are very happy.”
Esti noticeably responds, “Goodnight.”
Esti again speaks with formalities.
This telling moment in “Disobedience” sets the tone for a riveting drama wrapped in mystery and compromise, but ultimately, director Sebastian Lelio’s picture purposely dives into a tug of war between religious traditions and the desire to break from them. He introduces the audience to a London Orthodox Jewish community, one steeped in rituals that also treats family with the highest importance. Sure, many other formal social circles do as well, but in this case, one particular person delivers instructions of fidelity and virtue that everyone is expected to follow.
Ronit’s father, Rav Krushka (Anton Lesser), was this person.
The film clearly establishes that Ronit – sometime in the distant past – became disgruntled with her faith, and her subsequent estrangement is the consequence. Her family and friends are fully aware of the circumstances surrounding her disobedience, and the screenplay’s slow reveal effectively raises our curiosity about her unexplained truth.
The truth is that Ronit, Esti, Dovid, and others like Uncle Moshe (Allan Corduner) and Aunt Fruma (Bernice Stegers) carry a specific burden, shame or disappointment, and this uncomfortable silence rings loudly, while Lelio’s camera tightly winds through the temple’s hallways and various homes.
While maneuvering through several indoor locations, it becomes impossible not to notice the director’s fixation on several doors. Doors open, close and swing back and forth, as they seem to symbolize new possibilities, restrictions or reveal unexpected consequences of unwise actions, respectively.
Although the action moves through familiar constructs, Weisz, McAdams and Nivola drive the narrative with truly exceptional performances in two ways, defined by each half of the film. During the first 45 minutes, Ronit, Esti and Dovid cope with secrets from the past, as these characters earn our collateral and respect. We become invested in them, and once light shines on the mystery, our attention is surely steadfast, because their endings are deeply uncertain.
Ronit’s initial defiance – from so many years ago – certainly engendered a chilly homecoming during her time of bereavement, and a second present-day disobedience clearly is the right path. Of course, under the weight of family and religious rigors that trump freewill, the right path is not always the easiest choice.
Feelings over formalities.
⭐⭐⭐ 1/2 out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Image credits: Bleecker Street; Trailer credits: Movieclips Trailers