Disobedience review: Powerful performances make this less-than-nuanced movie a triumph

December 8, 2018
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Disobedience is aptly timed in the UK, though the issues it addresses have been around for centuries. The novel follows the story of a British woman who left her Orthodox Jewish home in North London for New York City and liberation. The movie distils a complicated narrative, full of nuance and care, into an almost-two-hour film steeped in steaminess. The Disobedience movie’s departures from its source material, written by Naomi Alderman and published in 2006, come at a cost, but the benefits of its mere existence outweigh them.

Few movies stand up to their literary counterparts, but Disobedience had a tall task, adopting a complicated narrative structure and highly nuanced topic for the screen and the masses.

On both sides of the Atlantic, anti-semitism is bubbling up from the swamp and into mainstream culture, so the timing of Disobedience in the UK could not be better.

The film was released in 2017 in America, where, as Ronit (Rachel Weisz) points out in the book, Jewishness is much more assimilated into the every-day culture than it is in her home of London.

The movie skims over this point, smoothing out the rough edges of literary nuance into easier to understand roles for the screen: Ronit is rebellious, Esti (Rachel McAdams) is effete, Dovid (Alessandro Nivola) is despotic.

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The movie paints them into their corners, but electric performances from each of them illuminate what could have been two-dimensional roles.

Directed by Sebastián Lelio, Disobedience gives Esti more agency than she has in the book, and frames the story as both about sexuality and religious constraints.

Its unabashed view into the internal lives of Esti and Ronit, as well as their forbidden intimacy, gives the public another lens into an LGBT life simply by existing.

The film also calls into question gender roles, both in the Orthodox Jewish community and the wider world.

But this unabashedness also made it an uncomfortable watch, and there was a palpable tension in the cinema as the small audience bristled at lesbian sex and Jewish prayers.

Both seemed equally alien to the viewers, and when Esti says to Ronit “may you live a long life” someone in the back row of the cinema giggled.

Being Jewish affords an understand many others don’t have: this isn’t a sarcastic quip meant to injure or render uncomfortable; it is a genuine phrase of compassion, of love.

Disobedience presumes a foundational knowledge of Jewish culture, which many non-Jewish people (as Ronit points out) don’t have.

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This presumption is a spotlight on the lack of understanding, integration, and acceptance of Jewishness (Orthodox or otherwise).

For his role as Dovid, Nivola won a BIFA award, while the film was nominated for four more including best film, actress, supporting actress, and screenplay.

Dovid becomes a stand-in for the deeply misogynistic gender roles inherent in Orthodoxy.

But he also offers a kaleidoscopic view of what it means to be deeply religious and live in the 21st century, where people you love (your wife, your cousin) break the rules to which you ascribe.

Though imperfect, Disobedience is a triumph for having made it to the big screen and made all the better by its stars who bring compassion and heart to their roles, despite its deviations from the book.

Disobedience is out in cinemas now.



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