Let’s take a look at issues of faith, feminism, and free will.
Disobedience is one of the few films this year I have managed to get excited for, and thankfully it didn’t disappoint. Cinema involving homosexual attraction is a minefield waiting to occur. I have been annoyed with the representation in the past (and I am straight—I imagine what annoys me infuriates those within the community). Representation is one thing, but accurate and ethical representation is where we should focus. Now, I am not an expert on gay and lesbian cinema, but Disobedience handles an attraction between two women—forbidden by their Orthodox community—quite well.
Exiled Ronit (Rachel Weisz) returns to her oppressive Orthodox community upon hearing about the death of her father. The discomfort of her presence is obvious with every interaction, and we are left wondering what the crime she committed was. She finds her childhood friend Dovid (Alessandro Nivola) who has married their mutual friend Esti (Rachel McAdams). The tension between these three characters is immediate and obvious. However, if the film has a weak point, it is the first fifteen minutes.
The trailers for the film spill a lot about the movie—namely that we are looking at the forbidden romance between Ronit and Esti. However, the film veils this aspect for the first act, and while we can predict a love triangle will form, it isn’t entirely clear who will take what position. Granted, the issue of the audience knowing too much might not be the film’s fault, but rather those who cut the trailer. Sure, this might be an unfair complaint, but the first chunk of the film is oddly stilted when we know exactly where it is going to go (and given the movie poster, they seem to want you to know this). I was disappointed here in two ways: first, I wonder what it would have been like to watch this film without knowing. Second, since we all already know (including everyone in the community) we could have pushed the central points a bit more.
Ronit is rebellious, free, and speaks her mind against the patriarchal structure of the Jewish community. She left to prevent herself from being forced into marriage, motherhood, and a loveless life. Her childhood love Esti is not as fortunate, but has strived to find meaning within her life. Esti claims religious fervor, and it is obvious Dovid is pious, where Ronit stands is not entirely clear. Ronit becomes our voice—the outsider. She is able to critique her surroundings in a way that can only be done from experiencing the internal and external lives in this world.
When the film works, it works fantastically. The tension and love between our three characters has a tinge of realism that is often absent in these sorts of movies. The film has also been hailed as having a realistic lesbian sex scene. While efforts were made to not have this done for the male gaze, I am certain it will still be fetishized, and this creates an additional hurdle these movies must confront. The vast majority written about this film (and now including my review) must bring this part of the film up. While it is good that the director was cautious in filming this—making a non-exploitative scene shouldn’t still be making headlines in 2018. Further, I worry that the film is being reduced to this eight-minute scene.
The film should be celebrated for taking on a challenging issue, and presenting it well. Issues of choice and identity are at the forefront of every conflict, and each of the characters are struggling to discover who they truly are in a world that rigidly subscribes roles to them. How these characters all challenge, accept, and reject aspects of what they want versus what society tells them they should do is interesting. Some of the emotional scenes are filmed beautifully, and the somber tone forces us to focus on the actors’ emotive reactions alone.
I enjoyed the film, and it will likely make my must-watch list for the year, but it isn’t without faults. While the directing is often good, sometimes we end up with shaky close-ups that cause things to go in and out of focus. While this could be argued to be a trick to show us how the character is feeling, it is too distracting to be effective. These rare moments do break the spell of the film, and while it does recover quickly, it is still an issue.
I imagine the ending will be divisive. I won’t spoil it here, but it isn’t an expected ending. I found it to be fitting—albeit somewhat frustrating. The film is certainly worth seeing, and while it has some imperfections, it is one of 2018s best.