Two films set in ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, communities outside Israel are currently playing in local movie theaters. “Menashe,” Joshua Weinstein’s first feature, is set in a Brooklyn community, is primarily in Yiddish and has a cast with no previous acting experience. “Disobedience,” the first English-speaking picture by the Chilean director Sebastian Lelio, takes place in the Haredi community in London and stars two acclaimed actresses: Rachel Weisz (who also initiated the production of the film, which is based on a novel by the British writer Naomi Alderman) and Rachel McAdams.
Lelio’s previous film, “A Fantastic Woman,” about a transgender woman whose lover’s family refuses to allow her to be part of the family’s mourning after he dies, played in Israel just a few months ago. It won the 2018 Oscar for Best Foreign Film. Five years earlier, “Gloria,” Lelio’s film about a 58-year-old divorcee who aspires to a life of sexual freedom, made his name known outside the director’s native land.
What sets “Menashe” and “Disobedience” apart from most of the Israeli films and television series dealing with the Haredi way of life, is that they avoid romanticizing the human, religious, social and cultural milieu they depict and do not play up its supposedly “exotic” aspects. Indeed, neither “Disobedience,” despite the boldness of its subject matter within the context of its social setting, nor “Menashe” leaves viewers feeling like voyeurs peeking into the world the films portray.
Perhaps because of the different venue, Lelio’s new picture lacks the passion of his previous work, yet this is also the source of its power. The allusiveness of “Disobedience” becomes the springboard for the conceptual and emotional ambivalence that invigorates the film.
While delivering a sermon about free choice, a theme the whole movie addresses, Rabbi Krushka, the community’s highly regarded and beloved spiritual leader, collapses and shortly afterward dies. His daughter, Ronit, a photographer living in New York who has severed all ties with the community in which she grew up, reacts to the news of her father’s death by going to a club, drinking heavily and having casual sex. But mourning finally overwhelms her: She tears her blouse in the traditional sign of grief and returns to London.
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Ronit (Rachel Weisz) has cut herself off not only from her father – and when she returns to the community she discovers that he has left her nothing, nor is her existence mentioned in his eulogy – but also from her two former closest friends in the community: Esti (Rachel McAdams) and Dovid (Alessandro Nivola). Although the motive for Ronit’s severance from the community is not specified, it’s clear that it has to do with the relationship that developed between her and Esti, which went beyond friendship. The presence of Ronit, now fully secular (she has even forgotten some of the halakhic rules that govern social contact between men and women) at her father’s funeral surprises those present. For her part, Ronit is surprised to discover that her two old friends, Esti and Dovid, are now married.
Challenging the audience
Although the plot revolves around the renewed relationship between Ronit and
Esti, the most enigmatic character is actually Dovid. Clearly he knew about Esti’s past when he married her, and he is also aware of what’s going on between his wife and Ronit now that the latter is back. Did he marry Esti for pure love? Did he wish to “save” her, or does he understand her and Ronit’s distress? Or perhaps it’s because the social ties that were formed during their adolescence remains a firmer existential foundation for him than any prosaic issues of marital infidelity or the essence of sexual identity and the way in which they subvert halakhic laws.
There is something challenging in the fashioning of Dovid’s character, and Nivola’s excellent performance brings this out well. But the two central female characters are also fraught with the same ambivalence that informs the film as a whole. In the wake of the romantic and sexual relationship that flares up again between Ronit and Esti – climaxing in a sex scene that is delicate and yet also frank and revealing, and which also challenges the viewing audience – does Ronit really want Esti to abandon her community and her husband and go with her to New York? And is Esti truly prepared to leave her society and her loving partner, with whom she obediently performs the sexual intercourse that the halakha orchestrates between husband and wife?
Lelio leaves these questions open, and therein lies much of the picture’s validity. Above all, the story attests to the continuing influence and power exercised by a closed community, whether one remains in it and tries to establish a home and a family – Esti and Dovid are childless, and the fact that the film doesn’t deal with this connects with the way Ronit’s father ignores the fact that he once had a daughter – or breaks with it and moves as far away as possible.
“Disobedience” does not restrict itself to the confines of a closed society, in this case the Haredi milieu, in an effort to uncover and critique it. The movie goes beyond its limited social boundaries to fashion a complex story whose psychological and emotional elements transcend the particular reality in which it unfolds.
In addition to Nivola, who has an ostensibly supporting role, the two lead actresses also deliver fine performances. McAdams, whose face is a spectrum of feelings, provides some of the most powerful moments in the film when she bares herself by removing the wig she wears as a married woman in the Haredi community.
Occasionally there is something a bit too contrived about the film, such as cinematography that studiously avoids any superfluous colorfulness. Overall, though, “Disobedience” is a serious work that offers a more multilayered, broader, fairer and more respectful portrait than viewers are accustomed to in films about the Haredi world. Above all, Lelio has found the right emotional balance and proportion for the picture – and even if this doesn’t necessarily make for a seething melodrama, it’s the film’s particular dramatic and emotional constriction that enables it to depart from the social milieu it documents into the recesses of the human experience that pulses within it and in its surroundings.