We classify ourselves into groups which give meaning and order to our experiences. What happens when those groups inhibit growth?
Ronit is the daughter of an orthodox Jewish rabbi, living a secular life as a successful photographer. Disowned by her family and cut off from her roots because of a teenage romance with a young woman, her life is thrown out of balance when she receives a call that her father has died. Returning to her community in order to attend the events surrounding his funeral, she finds a mixture of forgiveness, suspicion, judgement and sympathy. Esti, the girl that Ronit had loved, has grown into a strong but tightly wound woman, married to Dovid, their best friend growing up, a man who trained with Ronit’s father to become a rabbi. Indeed, he has been selected to succeed the celebrated Rav Krushka. Dovid and Esti are poised to take on the most important position in the community. But something is not, and has never been quite right under their roof. Now that Ronit has returned, the fragile life they have built together is rocked to its core.
In making Disobedience, it would have been easy to pit people of faith fully against homosexuals and require us to choose one side or the other. That is not what Sebastián Lelio has done in this adaptation of Naomi Alderman’s novel. Jewish tradition is honored, the beauty, depth and expressive power of its theology and, especially, of its liturgical music is depicted. Neither does the film shy away from the shortfalls of the faith’s adherents, nor the uncontrollable desire that binds Esti and Ronit. Clearly their romance has troubled the waters in this small Jewish community. There is not much sympathy and no support for homosexuality here. Most of the reactions to the unsanctioned romance are lacking in compassion. All are at least somewhat ignorant. And yet, there are enough ambiguities in the faith, in the sacred writings themselves, to create space for new interpretation that may lead somewhere in future generations. The place where we see this revolution of faith is not within the community itself, but within Dovid. I don’t want to spoil the film. The first time I watched it I had no idea how Dovid would reconcile the interior crisis of faith caused by the realization that his relationship with his wife is based on the premise that he, through his caring nature, would be able to convert her to heterosexuality. He has not, and their relationship has caused psychological damage to Esti by making her feel obligated to have sex which she does not desire. His community has required him to violate her personhood and now implies that he, as Rav Kuperman, should require her to completely give up her feelings for good. But is this what God requires?
One of my favorite scenes is of Dovid teaching from the Songs of Solomon. He postulates that surely there is something higher in the love between man and woman than physical sexuality, while the young men in his class agree that the text, bold in its passion, says otherwise. The trouble is understated, as is almost everything in the film, but you get the sense that Dovid is aware that his passionless marriage, as respectful as it is, is not what it should be.
This is a quiet, intimate movie. There isn’t screaming and railing. Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams and Alessandro Nivola, who is nearly unrecognizable behind a full beard, all give sensitive portrayals of complex individuals that never behave in cliché fashion. Ronit, Esti and Dovid are controlled people, quietly torturing themselves in their own private solitudes. They are living their experience moment to moment, not knowing where they are going. The cinematography enhances this, as does the musical score, which often goes dead silent. There are many closeups of inscrutable faces and the camera constantly catches small awkward gestures and movements. This renders the erupting passion between Esti and Ronit incredibly powerful in its decisive boldness. The only scenes which are not understated are the physical encounters between the women, culminating in an intense extended love scene. By contrast, the scenes between Dovid and Esti, while containing more nudity, are clinical and cold. The camera reinforces the emotional and spiritual climate that Esti must navigate.
Disobedience gives me hope that there can be space for dialogue within the most conservative faiths. It is in our best interests to expand our definition of ourselves and how we relate to others rather than allowing our institutions to do it for us. No group is a monolith: be it race based, gender based or faith based. It is often said that we join groups or causes to be a part of something bigger than ourselves, but it is also true that how we live our lives enriches and imparts meaning to the causes and groups we embrace. Speaking of our inward beings and granting each other freedom are the very first steps in allowing ourselves and our beliefs to grow. We may not understand each other, but we have to start the conversation somewhere. The healing and wholeness of our communities depend upon it.