Film Review: Disobedience By Sebastian Lelio

Disobedience could very well have been sensationalist in its storytelling, as it is the tale of a rekindled illicit affair between two women.

[WARNING: THE FOLLOWING REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS]

“HaShem made three types of creatures: the angel, the beast, and the human being. The angels He made from his pure word; the angels have no will to do evil – they cannot deviate for one moment from His purpose. The beasts have only their instincts to guide them; they too follow the commands of their maker. The Torah states that HaShem spent almost six whole days of creation fashioning these creatures. Then, just before sunset, He took a small quantity of earth and from it, he fashioned man and woman… an afterthought? Or His crowning achievement?

So what is this thing? Man. Woman. It is a being with the power to disobey – among all the creatures, we have free will. We have been suspended between the clarity of the angels and the desires of the beasts. HaShem gave us choice, which is both a privilege and a burden. We mustn’t choose the tangled life we live.”

And thus begins Disobedience. Rav Krushka falls down in the middle of his sermon, and Ronit Krushka’s life in cosmopolitan New York is turned upside down. Rachel Weisz plays Ronit, an established magazine photographer in the Big Apple, looking seemingly self-assured and at ease. The death of her father means the death of the last of her family and it sends her into a self-deprecating and numbing downward spiral, after which she gathers herself and leaves for her native London.

A flight later, Ronit finds herself back in the neighbourhood of Hendon in north London, a modern day Orthdox Jewish settlement. What used to be home for her once has still not changed; moreover, Ronit has grown out of it. Rachel Weisz’s body language alone is enough for the viewers to discern and feel just as uncomfortable as she does upon her entry into Hendon. Subtle, disapproving stares from men and women follow her everywhere, judging her for her “American” clothing, her wild mane of untamed hair, her smoking a cigarette. But something else seems amiss as well, even as Ronit tries in vain to fit in amidst the undertones of hostility surrounding her welcome. That is one of the beautiful things about this film, director Sebastian Lelio does not waste time in overexposition, but expects his viewers to be intelligent and engage with the film as it unfolds. Even the camera movements keep Ronit distinct from the rest of the community, as we see her huddling into herself to keep her discomfort at bay, a familiar emotion to a lot of us queer Indian people who are not made to feel particularly welcome back home or in the midst of their native religious communities. We keep seeing little unspoken Jewish norms of living popping up every now and then, and you can see what Ronit has been running away from all of this while, as Hendon’s way of life dictates everything you do, from the way you dress, do your hair, have sex, how you eat, how you pray and how you mourn.

The outlandish presence of Ronit is greeted (ironically, “May you live a long life”), rather mollycoddled by the maternal Fruma Hartog and her husband Moshe, who tells her that he was not expecting to see her. Welcomed back by her father’s disciple and her childhood friend, Dovid (Nivola), Ronit reaches to hug him, but he flinches, and Ronit is reminded that she cannot embrace another married man, as per their Jewish tradition. As they catch up on everything that has happened after she left Hendon, Esti (Rachel McAdams) makes her entrance, and there is a tense, awkward moment as Ronit realizes that her first love has married Dovid. What makes it even more discomforting is that their relationship never fully got closure, due to the discovery of their relationship by the rest of the community and Ronit’s abrupt departure thereafter. The married couple is kind enough to offer Ronit a place to stay, which only causes further turmoil in her mind as she wonders how their marriage must be.

Ronit’s patience is tested again and again, as it seems not only Dovid, but the Hartogs, and literally every secondary/supporting character was not expecting her to turn up. Moshe Hartog is characterized as the diplomatic misogynist orthodox religious figurehead, and even has the audacity to scold Ronit for not being there to care for the Rav in his final moments; this is in spite of the community treating Ronit like an outcast to this day. Little moments like the local newspaper stating that the Rav left no family behind, and Ronit having to ask some followers to let her spend some time alone with her father’s grave, really resonated with me as a viewer. While I myself am not a religious person, the constant erasure and rejection of Ronit’s very presence within the community for her sexuality and personal relationships hit a chord very close to home. While there are many LGBTQ Indians who are not out to their parents and relatives, the majority of the ones who are, either suffer outright rejection and abandonment by them, or are treated with indifference, with no clear acceptance of who they are. Add to that a religious backdrop, which is so common in our country, and we all know how that one goes down.

Dinner table scenes are always my favourite kind of scenes in cinema, because they are pure drama and there is a lot of unfolding of private emotions at an intimate, usually familial setting. Disobedience has one such scene, where Ronit is particularly outspoken, countering every veiled hostile remark against her in a direct, acerbic manner. She is questioned about her unmarried status and subsequent lack of children, to which Ronit replies that she would rather have her family with her close friends, and not resign herself to a loveless, arranged marriage and being a trophy wife for the sake of society, since that would ultimately drive her mad enough to kill herself. When I watched this scene, it made me realize that religion might not be the villain in every such case; it is the people who enforce it so ridiculously that they themselves lose all logic, reason and the desire to evolve forward. Dovid and Esti are supportive, pulling back on the reins of the conversation when the situation gets too tense, with Esti arguing in support of Ronit’s point more than once. They continuously steal subtle glances at each other, and the sparks reignite between the two.

Ronit feels like a fish out of water amongst the Hartogs and the Goldfarbs and runs out. Dovid comforts her, and you can really see how much his friendship means to Ronit, as she hears every word he says with patience. Ronit feels like she will probably never be able to get closure with her father as they were still estranged, and Dovid tells her that he would have wanted her to know that he loved her. Towards the end of the film, we see Ronit going to her father’s grave and clicking a photograph, fulfilling her desire of reconciliation, and to have a portrait of him.

The relationship between Ronit and Esti has literally been frozen in time; it literally stopped for the both of them the second Ronit left Hendon for New York. Their passion is the same, but both characters have gained some amount of growth after picking up where they left. Esti feels that the Rav’s solution to get her married and have her be “cured” of her homosexuality was correct and justified, saying it “hasn’t been a complete disaster” because she had to live within the boundaries of Hendon. When you look at it from Esti’s perspective, she is not entirely wrong, Dovid is a good man, Esti’s job as a teacher is fulfilling to her, and she has a respected place in society that could have been Ronit’s (but did not attain because of their mutual transgression). Ronit, for her part, is flabbergasted, calling it reason enough to break it off, and then proceeds to ask Esti if she takes part in the ritualized sex as expected of young married Jewish couples. Ronit calls it medieval, Esti says that she is not punished if she does not want to partake in it; however, we can see how passionless and resigned Esti looks when she has sex with Dovid. This conversation makes Ronit questions Esti as a teacher, mainly how can she teach her female students to value themselves, when she herself has lost the ability to. Their walk to Ronit’s childhood home ends with Esti admitting to still liking women, and their affair is rekindled in the next scene onwards.

There is explosive, natural chemistry between the two leads. On a personal, subjective level, I feel Rachel McAdams could have done more justice to the role, however Esti’s character was written better than Ronit’s, and we got to see aspects of her character unfold with the story. The sex scene between the two is passionate, steamy, but is not voyeuristic in nature. There is a genuine softness to how the two are with each other, with the aching familiarity of two lovers who have been apart for so many years. And for the first time, we see Esti begin to break out of the mould she has subconsciously and consciously bound herself into.

When Dovid confronts Esti about this renewed dalliance and how it is wrong in every sense imaginable, Esti owns it, coming into her own for the first time, saying “I have always been this way, I have always wanted it.” She is unapologetic about her feelings for Ronit, knowing that she cannot lie to herself anymore for the sake of their marriage, imploring Dovid to give her freedom that she wants. It is revealed that Esti is pregnant, and amidst all the raging, she manages to keep her reason, telling Dovid that she wants her child to have the choice that she could not make. This makes both Ronit and Dovid stop arguing, and this is the moment when you appreciate how Esti must have suffered so far, being born and married into the Jewish community that pre-dictated her life.

Ronit almost leaves, but Dovid helps her fulfil her wish of attending the hesped (last rites) of her father. It is the final act of rebellion, and all the film means, as Ronit is able to send her father off even in the presence and disapproval of the rest of the community, Dovid turns down the opportunity to be the next Rav, and Esti finally chooses for herself. The scene ends with the trio disregarding all laws of propriety and joining in a beautiful embrace.

The ending varies from the book, and I am so glad it does, because it is not a particularly happy end. While Ronit makes the decision to go back to New York, and Esti decides to not uproot herself and bring up her child in London, the two admit their love for each other, with the promise to see each other again soon. Disobedience could very well have been sensationalist in its storytelling, as it is the tale of a rekindled illicit affair between two women. However, Sebastian Lelio and his team do a wonderful and dignified job of the story, weaving it in a very realistic way with very realistic emotions while maintaining its subtle tones of melodrama.

About the author

Nikita Saxena

Nikita believes that the future is female (we have all read the t-shirts) and would like to make something of herself that isn’t just remembered as a “woman (insert editor, writer, cinematographer, etc. here)”. A pop culture and universal media geek, she completed her Bachelors in English from Lady Shri Ram College, New Delhi and her Masters in Mass Communication from AJK-MCRC, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. Currently, she works in Mumbai as a part of the burgeoning Indian entertainment industry, and hopes to make a big superhero film of her own soon one day.
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