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DISOBEDIENCE (2018) review

May 26, 2018

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written by: Sebastián Lelio and Rebecca Lenkiewicz
produced by: Frida Torresblanco, Rachel Weisz and Ed Guiney
directed by: Sebastián Lelio
rated: R (for some strong sexuality)
runtime: 114 min.
U.S. release date: April 27, 2018

 

I don’t know what it’s like to be Jewish, or to be queer in a religion that prescribes specific gendered roles. I do know what it’s like to be rejected by the faith community of one’s youth because of specific personal choices. And choice is at the heart of Sebastián Lelio’s subdued relationship drama “Disobedience”. Even the title suggests an intentional act of rebellion.

The opening scene of the film, in which an elder rabbi (Anton Lesser) collapses in front of his congregation, delivers a monologue on the Jewish perception of humanity as occupying a middle space between the base desires of beasts and the divine concerns of angels. What makes humans more than beasts is their freedom to choose: to obey or disobey. But it’s not simple or didactic the way the film, in a script written by Chilean director Sebastián Lelio (who recently won a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar for “A Fantastic Woman”) and Rebecca Lenkiewicz, represents this tension in terms of serving one’s community or oneself.

 

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For individuals who identify both as religious adherents and LGBTQ, it’s rarely as simple as choosing one or the other. Ronit (Rachel Weisz) has chosen to leave the community, an act that makes it difficult for her to go back. Her return to pay her respects to the rabbi is shunned with awkward gestures and sideways glances, if not with words themselves. Esti (Rachel McAdams), on the other hand, has retreated into the community and into a marriage with Ronit’s cousin Dovid (Alessandro Nivola).

The youthful affair that splintered Ronit from the community is left unexamined for much of the early parts of the film, as are the particulars of Ronit and Esti’s sexual attractions, leaving the viewer to wonder what degree of security exists in Dovid and Esti’s marriage, and therefore what level of threat Ronit’s return represents. It’s a slow-building story, one that takes its time to let its characters wait to reveal their desires and their misgivings in quiet moments of privacy.

There is a scene in which Ronit and Esti listen to The Cure’s “Love Song” on an old radio in Ronit’s childhood home. The song choice is a bit on the nose, but the scene also recalls the ways music sears memories into us, and the way those songs can immediately invoke the ghosts of youthful, often secretive, romanticism. It’s a breathtaking moment, wordless for much of it except for Robert Smith’s singing. It also fits well alongside the killer score from composer Matthew Herbert, a British electronic musician.

 

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The emotion of the two women’s performances that comes out in glances as much as in words speaks to a relationship that is similarly in that middle ground of active choice and inescapable pull. We’re unsure, as Ronit and Esti are, just how far they’re willing to go with these encounters—how much they’re willing to burn down the lives they’ve created, especially when Dovid is posed to take the late rabbi’s place.

The repressed sexuality is palpable, such that there is a kind of anguish in the performances and the film itself in every moment that Esti and Ronit keep each other at arm’s length. The scene of consummation that inevitably comes is so overdue it feels hungry, or like the bursting of a dam. Even the notion of exchanging bodily fluids is depicted as starkly – perhaps comically depending on how you react to the scene – intentional. But even as the act feels dangerous, it feels necessary, somewhere between and yet both carnal and divine: it is Esti choosing to be true to herself for the first time.

Where the film goes from there is surprising, and the ending is one of its richest elements. It’s an acknowledgement, perhaps even a celebration, of that middle ground that queer people of faith occupy as they learn how to embrace their truest selves.

 

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RATING: ***

 

 

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