Movie Reviews: Disobedience (2018)

In my past three reviews, I’ve now violated the three basic things you don’t talk about, politics, religion, and worst of all nerd properties.  The religion at the center of today’s film is Judaism or more specifically, a branch of Orthodox Judaism.  Orthodox Judaism may not be unheard of in pop culture (probably most frequently as a visual gag), but it is certainly if understandably far less represented than Christian and Islamic fundamentalists.  Religious fundamentalism comes in many forms, but at its heart it all feels remarkably similar.  It’s strict (though I’ve seen and heard about far stricter branches than what is ultimately depicted), ultra-conservative, and patriarchal.

This is a tough movie to discuss for a number of reasons.  For one, so much of it hinges on a discussion of a specific religious sect and it is impossible to separate that discussion from feeling like I am weighing down on it myself.  Criticisms of it feel insensitive and yet so much of the movie acts as a criticism of many aspects of the fundamentalist beliefs of the group.  Yet there is also an emphasis on the importance of choice within the movie from the opening scene to the end which makes it harder to condemn those who chose such a lifestyle or dismiss their beliefs and traditions.  It can be petty and insensitive concerns such as that the wigs the women of the community are all forced to wear never stop being distracting in a way I haven’t felt since I stopped watching The Blacklist, and yet, it is not lost on me the way the film draws a parallel between the wigs and the hiding of your true self.

It can also be far more broad and intrinsic to the story things such as that very patriarchal society (the aforementioned wigs, the women segregated and forced to sit on balconies at the synagogue, a general sense that the man is the one in charge and the woman exists to be subsumed by such) which is unquestionably a bad thing, and yet I feel uncomfortable imposing my world view on others especially at the deeply held beliefs of others.   At least, and as the movie makes abundantly clear, this is when they are only affecting themselves and they’re is a measure of choice involved.  Thankfully, writers Sebastián Lelio and Rebecca Lenkiewicz are far more talented writers than me and up to this balancing task, leaning heavily towards condemning the ways of the community, not the least how insular and gossipy it is, but at the same time offering that decision to choose orthodoxy as equally acceptable.

The plot is also difficult to talk about since a major part of the story is a bit of a spoiler, or rather it would be if it wasn’t the center of the marketing campaign.  A photographer by the name of Ronit (played by Rachel Weisz) returns home to the London Orthodox community she grew up in upon finding out her father has passed to mourn his death.  There she reconnects with the two friends Esti and Dovid (Rachel McAdams and Alessandro Nivola) who have since gotten married.  Dovid was her father’s prized student and natural successor.  He shows a kindness to Ronit that the others in the community don’t as they continue to shun her for running off but is a far more complicated figure who is still a product of his community in a number of unsavory ways and more set in his ways and conservative than his younger students.

Esti was something much more however.  For they were once lovers and their discovery years ago is what led or at least highly contributed to Ronit fleeing to America.  And yet, it’s Esti who is clearly the one interested in something more, a lesbian trapped in a marriage with someone she is incompatible despite her best efforts, while Ronit seems far more interested in properly morning her father.  I get why this was all spoiled as the looks Esti casts and the general awkwardness Ronit has upon seeing her (or perhaps worst of all not left too) make it pretty obvious where it is going, but it also feels misleading to what a large portion of the story actually entails.  But their chemistry is great and along with Nivola, it’s a trio of wonderful performances that feel like they come from people with a history together.

I do have nitpicks.  The use of The Cure’s “Love Song” was so on the nose that it almost ruined a very pivotal scene.  The lyrics playing almost exactly described what was going on in that scene to a ridiculous degree as characters stopped to listen to it.  Also, I’m not sure if the parallels between cigarettes originally being used by (and marketed to) women and their use here as a sort of female empowerment was intentional, but good on them I guess from a thematic standpoint even if it feels woefully outdated.  Also, as well written as those three lead characters are, the supporting ones suffer far more in comparison.

As a whole though, Disobedience is a very good film which says as much through showing as it does telling.  It looks and sounds great, while the story mostly avoids being ham fisted about its message, an impressive task that most works of its ilk don’t come anywhere near.  It keeps a consistent tone and knows when to pull back to keep scenes from being overblown.  There’s an obvious contingent of people who can’t get enough such stories about oppression, but for the rest of us who have been a bit burnt out by them, this is one that is not quite so bleak if you are avoiding it for that reason.