The sky is a wintry grey when Ronit (Rachel Weisz), a photographer, arrives in London, recalled to her hometown from New York by the death of her father, a local rabbi. The Orthodox Jewish community to which she returns dresses sombrely, in shades of black, and comports itself strictly. Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), a childhood friend and her father’s protégé, steps away from Ronit when, impulsively, she tries to hug him on the doorstep of the family home. Everything in Disobedience feels solemn, and looks it, too, from the cigarette breaks that signal Ronit’s tacit rebellion against the tenets of her upbringing, to the kiss that revivifies a long-suppressed romance between Ronit and her first love Esti (Rachel McAdams), who is now married to Dovid.
Though the film’s Hasidic setting may be a rarity on screen, the basic tale of Disobedience – a free-spirited woman defies censure – is familiar, not least to the director, Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Lelio. Lelio’s breakthrough feature, Gloria (2013), starred Paulina García as the titular character, a divorced woman in her late fifties who grabs a second chance at life on her own terms. (Gloria is currently slated for an English-language remake, directed by Lelio, with Julianne Moore in the title role.) A Fantastic Woman (2017), the first Chilean picture to win an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, centred on Marina (Daniela Vega), a young transgender woman who is shunned by the family of her late partner when he dies suddenly of an aneurysm, but who refuses to be cowed.
Disobedience, too, dwells on sudden bereavement and its aftermath. In the opening scene, Ronit’s father, Rav Krushka (Antony Lester), topples over while delivering a sermon on the subject of free will. Human beings, he had been in the midst of saying, are ‘the only beings with the power to disobey’. The film is like this throughout: a little obvious in its messaging of subtext, and a touch too schematic in its narrative architecture. Though the details of her exile take some time to emerge, we sense immediately that Ronit, with her uncovered hair and above-the-knee skirts, will prove an agent of disruption in this conservative world. Esti, too, is of a type, being outwardly dutiful and inwardly disquiet. The course of their affair feels both inevitable and predictable: at first explosive, then agonised; a private tumult which quickly implicates the community at large.