Monday 7 September 2020

Movie Review: Disobedience (2017)

A romantic drama about a lesbian affair disrupting a conservative religious community, Disobedience explores modern misfits and misplaced morality but also suffers from plumbiferous pacing.

Upon hearing about the death of her father Rav Krushka, a respected leader in London's Jewish community, New York-based professional photographer Ronit Krushka (Rachel Weisz) travels back to London. Years earlier black sheep Ronit had left under a cloud after her gay relationship with Esti (Rachel McAdams) scandalized the community. Now Ronit is shocked to find Esti married to their childhood best friend Dovid Kuperman (Alessandro Nivola), the Rav's most loyal student and likely successor.

Ronit finds her family and the larger community as conservative, traditional and condescending as when she left. But the sparks between Ronit and Esti, now a schoolteacher, re-ignite immediately, undermining Esti's marriage to Dovid and threatening his ability to accept the promotion to fill the Rav's position.

Both the return of the prodigal daughter and the scandalous relationship are well-worn cinematic themes. In Disobedience director Sebasti├ín Lelio, adapting Naomi Alderman's book and co-writing the script with Rebecca Lenkiewicz, adds in the layer of a modern-day community still adhering to traditional codes of morality and gender behaviour expectations to further pile pressure onto the lovers' shoulders. 

And here the lovers are not naive young things, but rather grown women with the ability to exert their independence. While Ronit moved away to define life on her terms, Esti stayed behind and acquiesced to a sham of a marriage, maybe half-convinced a union with Dovid is an acceptable suffocation of her sexuality to gain the acceptance of the community elders.

Ronit's re-emergence puts a comprehensive stop to any such misconceptions. The fire between the two women is instantaneous, and with Weisz and McAdams generating exquisite chemistry, Lelio beautifully stokes the tension between the resolute Ronit and a dazed but willing Esti. Their sensual lovemaking scene is a fine example of non-exploitive eroticism.

Although natural tension is generated by the sizzling romance upturning the harmony of an already grieving community, Disobedience is still an achingly slow experience. Drawn out to an almost excruciating 114 minutes, the film is easily 20 minutes longer than needed for what is ultimately a small and personal story. The padding is obvious in long moments of silence and interminable scenes of religious ceremony.

But with Alessandro Nivola delivering a measured and circumspect performance as the man caught in the middle, Disobedience maintains cohesion. An adept student of the Rav's essence rather than any judgmental trappings, Dovid grows increasingly aware a community can choose to live in the past, but disobeying the present is exceptionally difficult.

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