With career-high performances from Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams, plus the haunting ferocity of Alessandro Nivola’s silent, tormented rabbi character, “Disobedience” is a nuanced, intelligent and emotionally-evolved depiction of forbidden love in unforgiving societies. Rarely do we get a movie like this where storytellers effectively critique tradition and power structures without wholly convicting them.
With a script from Sebastian Lelio and Rebbeca Lenkiewicz, based on the novel by Naomi Alderman, “Disobedience” follows New York-based photographer Ronit Krushka as she ventures to her hometown Orthodox Jewish community in London to mourn her father, a beloved communal rabbi. Though she only greets them with smiles and kind words, Ronit is an outcast among this community for a same-sex romance she had during her childhood . She’s not so much a pariah where no one is willing to speak to her, but she does incite a fair amount of murmurs and disapproving head shakes whenever she leaves the room.
While in town, Ronit stays with Dovid Kuperman (Nivola), a too beloved rabbi who’s the presumptive heir to take over as the spiritual leader of the community. In the years since Ronit’s move, Dovid has married Esti Kuperman (Rachel McAdams), a kind, timid schoolteacher who follows all of the necessary Orthdox customs and practices to a fault. But the sparks turn to flame as Ronit and Esti rekindle their romance, with Esti confessing her anguish over her sexuality while being trapped in a passionless marriage.
Esti would want nothing more to roam the bustling streets of New York with Ronit, but she still is compelled by her devotion to her community. When the two nearly get caught making out, the thought of her world crumbling is unbearable, no matter how oppressing that world may be. Even Ronit, who has no obligation to stay in the city, especially after the rude welcome she received from her peers, almost shows a love for the way of life too, that had she not been shunned, she’d be more than willing to return.
And then there’s Dovid, who lives his life by-the-book and technically isn’t the one causing harm to Esti. He believes in tradition, religion and self-reflection, managing to always walk in-between the lines while his wife’s paces are on a curve. Both Dovid and Esti silently recognize that had they been born even a few blocks over away from this community, they’d be completely different people and able to live their lives as they wish. They first recognize that its those long-standing societal rules holding them back, but discover traditions are only as powerful as those who still believe in them.
The movie occasionally dawdles and has an awkward, peppy score that doesn’t really jive with the events on screen. But “Disobedience” is built on rich, developed characters battling a life-long conflict, waiting for the other side to finally give in.