When we first meet Ronit, embodied by Rachel Weisz in an achingly lived-in performance, she’s busy photographing an older, shirtless and heavily tattooed man. She briefly looks up to give him direction and a warm smile creeps across her face, blatantly cherishing this small moment of interaction in an obviously New York bohemian lifestyle.
This emotion is contrasted sharply in the next few scenes where her vivacious warmth turns to dour repression as she returns home to London after receiving word of her father’s death. Not only has she been estranged from him for many years — which we learn about through an obituary notice that casually notes he was without children and he’s left her childhood home to his synagogue — but his lifestyle has estranged her as well.
As a respected rabbi in a Hasidic Judaic community, the backwards stares and cloistered whispers of everyone around as she enters rooms and walks down the street serve as a recurring cultural lifestyle contrast that won’t allow anyone happiness. This religious-fish-out-of-water narrative involving the Hasidic community has been well trod in films before, but in the hands of filmmaker Sebastain Leilo and his more than capable cast, Disobedience doesn’t treat it with anything less than striking intelligence and humane interactions.
Beyond her refusal to embrace the communal traditions of her respected father, further complicating Ronit’s return is the emergence of a fiery relationship that’s rekindled with her once best friend Esti (Rachel McAdams). Now married to Ronit’s adoptive brother Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), Esti is herself struggling with her identity.
As the marketing and word-of-mouth has made clear, Disobedience charts the sexual relationship re-ignited between Weisz and McAdams. Both actresses have gone on record commending director Leilo for his sensitive and well-managed approach to the overall film and their steamy sex scene. But Disobedience offers much more in the process.
It’s a film that carefully metes out a flood of emotions and reservations as this trio deals with past complications and newfound attractions. And while the lion’s share of attention is given to the homosexual relationship between the two women, Leilo and co-writer Rebecca Lenkiewicz, adapting their script from a novel by Naomi Alderman, provide a stunning, full bodied representation of the man caught in the middle as well.
As Dovid, actor Nivola gives a tremendous performance. It’d be easy to play his jilted husband as something arch and prone to histrionics, but the final monologue he gives as the camera holds close on his face, barely able to keep up with him jabbing and rocking in and out of the frame, underscores a film that’s willing to examine a complicated affair from all sides.
If anything, Disobedience may draw crowds to this smallish, art-house film for its taboo context. If we’re lucky, they’ll leave touched and better off for the piece of terrific filmmaking underneath it’s provocative surface.
Disobedience opens in the Dallas/Fort Worth area on Friday, May 11.