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Disobedience: Lesbian love blossoms in a monotone Orthodox Jewish Community
November 26, 2018
Hot on the trails of his Oscar winning film A Fantastic Woman, Chilean director Sebastian Lelio returns with Disobedience, a simmering, dark romance that tackles themes of isolation, sexuality and freedom within the Orthodox Jewish community. When Ronit Krushka (Rachel Weisz) returns home to London following the death of her father, a well-loved rabbi within her old Orthodox community, she is greeted coldly by her friends and family who believe she abandoned them in favour the bright lights of New York and a life of sin. Ronit’s old friends Dovid (Alessandro Nivola) and Esti (Rachel McAdams) reluctantly take her in while she addresses her father’s last will and testament and attempts to reconcile her place within her family despite her lengthy absence.
The desaturated colour palette and monotone costume design of Disobedience are at odds with Ronit’s more modern, metropolitan lifestyle; on a purely visual level, Ronit stands out amongst the identically dressed traditionalist community. In fact, without subtle hints of laptop and mobile phone usage, the time period in which Disobedience is set would be unclear. Ronit’s arrival in London is met with an icy disdain from her former friends, especially Esti; an uncomfortable tension sits between the pair, particularly after Ronit learns that Dovid and Esti are now married. This eerie tension bubbles under the surface, Lelio’s deliberate pacing slowly teasing a history between the women until, suddenly, they kiss.
Ronit questions how Esti could settle for an unfulfilling marriage and a life as a schoolteacher, serving the very community that would persecute her for her sexual orientation, whilst Esti wonders how Ronit could abandon her former life. A passionate sexual encounter in a hotel room sees Esti question her loyalties, once again bringing the idea of freedom and choice to the fore. Both Esti and Ronit were born and raised within the Orthodox community, one decided to choose her own path and leave for good, while the other buckled under the pressure of her faith and family, at the expense of her own happiness. This story has been told many times before but setting it against the backdrop of an Orthodox Jewish community, a religion not often committed to film, allows it to feel somewhat fresh.
Unfortunately, the visual bleakness of Disobedience bleeds into its cinematic tone; even the most passionate moments between Ronit and Esti feel so drained of joy by the muted colours and sparse score that the film feels as cold as its characters. This could be because Esti and Ronit’s love is not new, there is not the same excitement as when they were teenagers and Lelio is trying to reflect this in the direction. Even if that is the case, Disobedience often feels too subdued, held down by its own commitment to realism. Luckily, as the film comes to a head at Rabbi Krushka’s eulogy, the drama does ramp up, with Nivola delivering an impassioned speech on freedom to the attendees but aimed directly at his wife.
This is not a film for everyone: Like Lelio’s acclaimed A Fantastic Woman, the story of a transgender woman who comes under scrutiny following the death of her husband, Disobedience is a story of identity that will likely mean a great deal to its represented audience whilst also shining a light upon an underrepresented group within society. Excellent performances and a unique religious backdrop keep the film interesting for most of its two-hour run time, but Sebastian Lelio’s commitment to maintaining the drab, quiet feeling of grey Britain stunts the films excitement. Lelio does a good job of crafting a lesbian love story free of the male gaze, but also one that seems almost entirely devoid of passion, at least from a cinematic standpoint. This was never meant to be a happy tale of the limerence of a first love, but sometimes, a little colour goes a long way.
Disobedience is set for release on the 30th of November 2018.
Words by Ethan Megenis-Clarke @_ethanmc.
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