Acclaimed Chilean director Sebastián Lelio’s hotly anticipated Disobedience sets out to explore the complexities of lesbian sexuality within the conservative, hermetic Hasidic community. The film stars Rachel Weisz as Ronit and Rachel McAdams as Esti, former teenage lovers who became estranged when Ronit fled the restrictive life of the Hasidim to become a photographer in New York. When Ronit returns to attend her father’s funeral, she discovers that Esti has married Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), a close childhood friend of the two women.
Cowritten by Lelio and Rebecca Lenkiewicz, Disobedience is flat in transmitting the sense of intimacy or cultural complexity necessary to make such a drama believable. It suffers from a vast credibility gap in its portrayal of Ronit and Esti as lesbian lovers. This gap is based not only on a very real lack of screen chemistry between the two actors, but also on a narrative that fails to establish the nature of the characters’ bond. Fifteen minutes into the film, when Ronit and Esti encounter each another for the first time in years, it feels like we are starting in the middle of the story with no explanation.
The question of what attracted these women to each other, what alternate world they created amid their suffocating, patriarchal home lives, seems to hang in the air for most of the film’s run time. This lack of emotional intimacy carries over into the sex scenes, which, though fairly graphic, are quite stilted, recalling some of the cringe of another infamously corny lesbian drama, High Art.
The vagueness that dogs Ronit and Esti’s relationship also lingers around the film’s one-sided representation of the Hasidic community as a world in which seemingly no one laughs or experiences joy. The nuances and lifeways of a community that rarely gets represented in Hollywood films are glossed over in favor of pointed, cynical critiques from Ronit: “Perhaps you can stop having so many children,” she says at one point. At another, when Esti tells Ronit she looks very beautiful, Ronit retorts, “And you look very frum,” meaning Esti is dressed modestly, as Hasidic laws dictate, but frumpy for secular modernity. Without much cultural context, zingers like this feel ad hominem and make the film’s protagonist seem strangely depthless.
The lone point of light in this drab affair is Nivola, who plays Dovid with exquisite sensitivity. Torn between his faith and his deep friendship with the two women, he struggles mightily to make ethical choices in a context that demands moral absolutes. Nivola tempers the film’s often simplistic portrayal of the Hasidim with the sincere, spare manner in which he delivers philosophical ruminations on devotion and freedom.
After rising to international renown in the short space of two feature films, Lelio has joined the ranks of Latin-American directors crossing over into English-language art-house cinema. The strength of Lelio’s previous two films, Gloria and A Fantastic Woman, was premised on his and the actors’ lived experience of the material. In Disobedience, Lelio and his cast seem out of their depths, hinting at the fact that international stardom does not make for international cultural competency.