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Non-Review Review: Disobedience

Disobedience is the statistical mean derived from its premise, filtered through the lens of modern awards fare.

Disobedience is the story of two women trapped within the Orthodox Jewish community in contemporary (or close to contemporary) London. Ronit Krushka returns home upon receiving word of her father’s death. Her return shocks the community, which is still recovering from the scandal of her departure years earlier. Ronit arrives to discover that her old friend Esti and her cousin Dovid have married in her absence, Ronit’s return serving to stoke old tensions and poke at still-healing wounds within the community.

Rachels’ Vice.

Disobedience is an adaptation of Naomi Alderman’s novel, and is very much an archetypal example of contemporary prestigious drama. Disobedience is effectively a delivery method for a set of striking performances from its leading triptych, but is also largely anemic; this is a movie that confuses inertia for profundity and lethargy for restraint. Disobedience is populated by characters who seem more comfortable talking around things rather than about them. There is undoubtedly an argument to be made about such an approach seeming naturalistic, but here is largely dull.

Disobedience seems afraid of its central tensions, wary of navigate a minefield that it has chosen for itself. The result is a movie that feels largely ornate. It has a great cast and some big ideas, but never seems to know quite what to do with either.

Touching reunion.

The title of Disobedience suggests its central theme. The movie opens with a rabbi delivering a sermon on God’s creation, on the angels and the beasts, and the need for mankind to elevate themselves above their bestial desires in order to attain some form of spiritual purity. Of course, it is debatable whether it is even possible for mankind to fully suppress those urges, let alone the sorts of norms that are typically enforced by this sort of rhetoric. Disobedience is about the idea of freedom within a tightly knit community, and who exactly gets to define that freedom.

It becomes very clear early in the film that Ronit and Esti had a physical and emotional relationship, and that the fallout from their affair nearly tore the community apart. It forced Ronit into exile in New York, leaving her disowned by her father; a newspaper obituary notes that he died “childless”, a perspective reinforced by his last will and testament. It also forced Esti into a marriage that she very clearly did not want, even if she admits that it is not the worst sort of life for a person to live.

Recandling the flame.

Repeatedly, Disobedience emphasises the manner in which these sorts of communities oppress women, whether through social pressure or through familial relationships. Ronit admits some frustration in her father’s refusal to leave her the house. “Would you really want it?” Esti asks. “Financial freedom?” Ronit sarcastically responds. “Nah, that would be too easy.” This is just one manner in which those sorts of men disempower women, denying them meaningful freedom even in death.

Of course, this is a very loaded theme to deal with when exploring the Orthodox Jewish community. The Jewish community has been subjected to its own history of oppression and violence, and carries its own deep-set anxieties about where power lies. These fears are rooted in historical fact. Naturally, this history of oppression and suffering complicates relations between (and within) this group, particularly as it relates to other marginalised groups; the treatment of the Palestinians, the Crown Heights riots, the support of the Trump Administration. This is all charged.

An unorthodox approach.

Disobedience acknowledges this awkwardness head-on during a highly-charged dinner scene. At one point, Ronit’s relatives are deriding her decision to change her last name in a professional context, a familiar tension for Jewish individuals in high-profile positions. However, Esti rather pointedly jumps in, “Women change their names every day. They take their husbands’ name and their history is gone.” That last clause is very telling, explicitly evoking the spectre of the Holocaust and the erasure of Jewish history in the broader context of the way women are treated in society.

It is a bold moment, perhaps the boldest moment in the film. It is deeply uncomfortable, as any implication of that magnitude should be. That line picks at something the film never quite articulates elsewhere, the irony of a group that was a victim of systemic oppression perpetuating systemic oppression. However, Disobedience never develops the idea any further. It never delves into the idea. It just throws the idea out there and leaves it lying limp. Instead, the characters retreat back to passive-aggressive asides and meaningful glances.

Prone to flights of fancy.

To be fair, there is some interesting material here. In particular, there is something very effective about how Sebastián Lelio captures the ritual and custom of this community. Dovid is clearly shomer negiah, meaning that he is prevented by law from engaging in physical contact with women outside of his immediate family. This leads to a number of very effective visuals; Dovid recoiling from Ronit during their reunion, and later trying to comfort her without being able to touch her. Lelio captures the way in which systems dictate and smother human behaviour.

Nevertheless, the film feels inert. There is never any real sense of passion or tension, outside of a brief escape away from the community and into the heart of London; a simple train ride that might allow Ronit and Esti to venture towards freedom. Even then, the passionate sequences between Ronit and Esti exist in such detail of themselves and in such contrast to anything else in the film that they manage to feel both triumphant and exploitative. The sequence might seem more effective if that repressed passion had been simmering for the film, instead of completely buried.

Holding on together.

There is a strange sense of misplaced emphasis within the narrative. Ronit is positioned as the central character, the daughter who journeys home to reconcile with her father and who must grapple with what she left behind. However, the emotional heart of the film is Esti, who has the clearest arc and strongest character. Indeed, the best part of the film may be the way in which it cannily subverts a very obvious narrative beat involving Esti, playing audience expectations of these sorts of narratives.

However, the issue is that Ronit is the focus of the film by virtue of being played by Rachel Weisz and headlining the movie. Beyond that, Rachel McAdams does a generally great job in the more demanding and more complex of Esti, but struggles a little bit with her accent. There is something subtle “off” about the way that Esti talks when surrounded by the rest of the cast, to the point that Disobedience might have worked better with the two lead roles swapped.

A not-so-touching reunion.

Disobedience has a lot of really great raw material with which it might have worked. Unfortunately, it never delivers on any of that potential.

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