Disobedience (2017)

Director: Sebastián Lelio
Writer: Sebastián Lelio, Rebecca Lenkiewicz
Based on: Naomi Alderman‘s novel
Cast: Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams, Alessandro Nivola, Anton Lesser, Allan Corduner, Nicholas Woodeson, David Fleeshman, Bernice Stegers
Seen on: 15.5.2020

Content Note: (critical treatment of) homomisia

Ronit (Rachel Weisz) left the Orthodox Jewish community where she grew up behind. But when her father (Anton Lesser) dies, she returns for the funeral. Reconnecting with her best friends Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), her father’s closest student, and Esti (Rachel McAdams), she learns that the two got married. This further complicates her return – because she left all those years ago because she and Esti were in love. And maybe they still are.

Disobedience is a film that finds its strength in the quiet moments and in the lead performances. But it’s also a film that left me with a sense of unease regarding its protrayal of both queerness and of the Orthodox Jewish community.

The film poster showing Esti (Rachel McAdams) and Ronit (Rachel Weisz) kissing.

Given that I’m a very big fan of Weisz, I could hardly pass up the opportunity to watch a film where she plays a queer woman. But I was admittedly already hesitant going into the film: Weisz is Jewish (though if she practices, I don’t know), but neither McAdams, Nivola nor Lelio are and I was afraid that this would lead to a certain objectification of the setting in an Orthodox Jewish community. And the film didn’t alleviate my worries in that regard. Now, I’m not Jewish myself and I am no specialist on Jewish culture/religion/practices, but it was pretty obvious for me that the film takes the outside perspective on Orthodox Jews and their community and doesn’t look from within (this article seems to give my impressions more substance). It’s not antisemitic, I think. It doesn’t paint the Jewish people in the community as evil and homomisic. But I don’t think it does them real justice either.

Again, I’m not Jewish, so my perspective on this is not that relevant. But I am a queer woman, and I felt the same sense of an outside look on the queer love story in the film that I felt on the Jewish community. Neither Weisz nor McAdams are (out) queer, nor is Lelio as far as I know. It’s definitely not a film that turns the straight male gaze on the two women making out, but neither is it a film that felt particularly queer to me. To me it was made with non-queer (and non-Jewish) audience in mind – and that makes itself felt. Especially in the ending that sets everything up for happiness and then just… doesn’t go there for completely unclear reasons.

Esti (Rachel McAdams) and Ronit (Rachel Weisz) holding hands in a park.

That being said, the film does have its strong moments, too. Even if it would have been better if the film had cast actual Jewish people in all of the lead roles, Weisz, McAdams and Nivola are fantastic and the film comes most alive, when the three of them try to figure out where they stand with each other, much more so than when Ronit and Esti are on their own.

Lelio gives the characters enough room to breathe and manages to make the most out of the wordless moments – they are more impressive than the dialogues in any case. So, there definitely are good things about the film. But I can’t help but wonder how much better it could have been if it had been made by queer (Orthodox) Jewish people themselves.

Ronit (Rachel Weisz) looks sad, Dovid (Alessandro Nivola) watches her.

Summarizing: interesting, but not without its problems.

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