Arts & Style

Lelio’s Disobedience finds new ways to show fundamentals of love

Disobedience, based on the novel by Naomi Alderman and directed by Sebastian Lelio, begins in a temple. It is Shabbat and Rav Krushka — Rav being a form of a rabbinic title — played by Anton Lesser, whisks his congregation along the holy day’s sermon with practiced ease.

The synagogue is respectfully silent, save for the wheezing creak of floorboards and Rav Krushka’s account of the creation story. Human beings, he says, rest between angels and beasts through the power of choice, free will and the liberation of self-destruction.

Then the rabbi collapses, claimed by pneumonia. Halfway across the world, his only daughter, Ronit Krushka, played by Rachel Weisz, catches the next flight to Heathrow Airport, finally returning to the community that ostracized her years ago.

Little has changed. As the social rift continues to widen, Ronit rekindles the first romance of her youth, daring to be burned a second time by Esti Kuperman, played by Rachel McAdams, who is now married to the late rabbi’s protégé.

Expositional hurdles cleared, Disobedience boldly leaps into an emotionally charged deconstruction of faith, love and duty. Its cinematography accentuates the estrangement Ronit feels as her homecoming becomes a profoundly personal experience.

As one of the more difficult facets of Disobedience’s visual storytelling to portray, Lelio acclimates his audience to Orthodox Jewish culture without reducing its sophistication or language. The settings at once become familiar, often laden with Judaica and other authentic household items.

Without delving too deeply into the everyday life of the community, the love story takes center stage, establishing an already precarious situation that could unleash a potential hornets’ nest of chaos. The precocious first steps of Ronit’s and Esti’s love soon escalate beyond any point of return.

What is so remarkable about the two women’s relationship is how consistently it rings true, as both actresses do a phenomenal job of carrying their characters and the audience away with this powerful romance.

There is a pure sense to their sensuality — a ritual to the worship of each other’s bodies that breaks free of patriarchal and sexually redundant routine. As both a consecration of love and defiant act against doctrine and community alike, Disobedience’s fearlessness reverberates to the core of its message: choice is what sets humanity apart from lustful beasts and complacent angels.

It is a pleasant surprise to find that Esti is not simply relegated to playing the love interest. Being the one married into the community, evading the ignominy Ronit endures, she could have let this entire episode pass without so much as a blip on the radar.

But the repercussions of her choice to do the opposite further testify to the larger themes of Disobedience.

For a film that often personifies the gap between the Orthodoxy and popular culture, Lelio does a remarkable job of not criticizing either dogma.

Instead, Disobedience respectfully keeps its distance from any substantive claims; although various hypocrisies are voiced, there is never an outright attack on the faith.

Disappointingly, the empty seat Rav Krushka left behind is never filled with meaningful substance. Though he maintains negative space, Lelio’s juxtaposition of the filial link between Rav Krushka and his daughter and Ronit’s quest for atonement resembles Chuck Palahniuk’s axiom in his novel Fight Club. Stated by the similarly lawless Tyler Durden, the phrase says, “What you end up doing is you spend your life searching for a father and God.” It is just a shame that Ronit does not have as evocative a moment of reconciliation with her father as she does with her lover.

Disobedience also falters at times with its external dialogue. Ronit is assailed by the same repetitive small talk during a large portion of the film’s introduction, clear as it may be that the community wants nothing more to do with her. A succession of extras asking if Ronit is okay stokes irritation rather than empathy for the overwhelmed daughter.

At the same time, there is certainly awareness for the power of the unspoken word.

Through the mouthpiece of solidarity, facial expressions hammer home truths that words fail to grasp.

Using the same cinematic technique as Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, where super-shallow focus turns portraits into an intense form of intimacy, each profile becomes a blueprint for the inner machinations and turmoil of the characters.

From furtively darting eyes to clenched jaws and grimaces, each close-up portends to a gradual erosion of emotional barriers. Without question, it is the cinematography that gives Disobedience the momentum it needs to be a tour de force film.

But for all the emotions on display and otherwise replaced, Disobedience is in want of some greater catharsis.

Ronit’s  homecoming does get bogged down by a brief fantasy of elopement, however there is never any doubt as to how the story will pan out: it ends exactly as it should, but it is unclear if that is the best solution.

Although there are no great twists or frightful shocks, Disobedience’s greatest strengths rectify its few shortcomings. Lelio has tackled the fundamentals of love in refreshingly brilliant new ways, and the film’s conclusion hearkens back to the late Rav Krushka’s last words: “It is every person’s duty, and theirs alone, to choose the lives they lead.”

May 3, 2018

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Charles Tabasso


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