There’s a concept in Jewish law followed by Orthodox Jews called Negiah. It means touch. With the exception of those of the immediate family, Negiah forbids physical contact with members of the opposite sex. There’s a scene early in the new drama from director Sebastian Lelio, Disobedience, where a woman returns to the strict Orthodox Jewish community of her youth and goes to hug a childhood friend, now a rabbi. He pulls back. It’s an uncomfortable moment for both, particularly for the woman who had forgotten the observance. It’s also an indication of how many years have distanced the woman from her roots.
Based on the novel of the same name by Naomi Alderman, Ronit Krushka (Rachel Weisz, never better) is a London born photographer, now living and working in New York. When news of her father’s death arrives, Ronit handles the sorrow in her own, character-revealing way. She takes a long, reflective evening walk, sits at a bar for a few drinks, then has sex with a stranger up against a bathroom wall.
Her father was a well-respected and influential rabbi who we see during the opening minutes of the film. Rav Krushka (Anton Lesser) is in a North London synagogue talking of angels, beasts, and mankind, and explaining that, unlike the angels or the beasts whose roles are clearly defined, mankind has free will, the power to disobey, the ability to exercise a freedom of choice. It’s a theme that once spoken, hangs like an invisible spirit above all of the characters in the story to follow.
“You need to speak to this man,” a co-worker in New York tells Ronit once a long distance call is made relating the news of her father’s passing. The single, thirty-something photographer packs her bags and flies home, not wanting to face the community she abandoned, but at least prepared to deal with the consequences that will surely follow. After all, it was her choice to leave and her freedom to choose it.
Once back in London, Ronit reunites with those she knew before, both family members and friends, particularly Rabbi Dovid Kuperman (an excellent Alessandro Nivola, a character both descent and sympathetic) and his wife, Esti (Rachel McAdams; unexpectedly yet effectively plain, plus a faultless English accent). But it’s an uneasy reunification. Ronit is shocked that Esti is now the rabbi’s wife. “Why didn’t you let me know?” she asks when others are nowhere near. “You disappeared,” Esti replies.
Though the specifics are only slowly revealed, it doesn’t take long to understand what had previously occurred and why Ronit left her father and the community; you see it in her glances as Esti enters the room, the look of disappointment she fails to hide, and her overall body language. Ronit left for a new life elsewhere once her lesbian, teenage romance with Esti was discovered. And before anyone cries plot-spoiler, look at the poster. As expected, their affections will reignite – they can’t help themselves – but with it comes a whole new direction to follow, unexpected choices to be made, and, as Rav Krushka expressed in that opening scene, the freedom required to choose them.
While the performances of the three leads successfully capture the very essence of what their characters require, and the eventual love-making scene between Ronit and Esti is explicit without feeling sensationally voyeuristic, it’s the look of the film that draws attention.
Danny Cohen’s cinematography expresses a colorless North London suburb – the book takes place in Hendon, the street scenes were shot in Cricklewood – where the January skies are a dull, cloudy gray, the characters are dressed mostly in black, and the walls of the homes, offices, schools, and hospital settings are generally white. Only occasionally does a sense of color come through, as with the uniformed winter school sweaters of the young girls in the classroom where Esti teaches. Though the setting is present-day, given its overall design, Disobedience would have benefited from a black and white shoot, effectively adding a visual sense of authenticity to its timeless theme.
There’s a heart-wrenching pain to the center of the story that is felt from the moment Ronit receives that phone-call, and it never leaves. Though Disobedience is unlikely to cross far from its art-house base to mainstream audiences, it’s the conflicts explored and the compassion displayed that makes the film work as well as it does.
MPAA rating: R Length: 114 Minutes Overall rating: 8 (out of 10)