Nice Jewish Girls (Film Review: “Disobedience”)


Rachel McAdams and Rachel Weisz show what a low simmer feels like in the lesbian potboiler Disobedience, about two Jewish women whose past comes back to shatter the pacts they’ve made with themselves since the turbulent love affair of their youths.

SnapShot Plot

The film Disobedience unwinds slowly and steadily, all the while exerting a gradual tightening of suspense as its two leads keep circling round one another until the inevitable admission of a shared passion that can only spell ruin for one. The story begins in an Orthodox Jewish community in North London, when an elderly, frail and highly revered rabbi begins speaking to the congregation on matters of humanity, namely free will and choice. He collapses into the arms of his prodigy, young scholar and ‘heir to the throne’, Dovid Kuperman (played with great nuance by Alessandro Nivola.) Across the pond in New York City, the rabbi’s daughter Ronit (played by Rachel Weisz,) an independent, decidedly non-religious single photographer, is summoned back to London to attend her father’s funeral. When she arrives – an obvious pariah to the community – she is shocked to discover that her childhood friend Esti (in a luminous performance by Rachel McAdams) is now married to Dovid. The week ahead should be one of respectful mourning. Instead it becomes the catalyst for a resurgence of feeling between Esti and Ronit, whose irresistible bond defies a centuries old taboo and finds them resorting to a recklessness that can only spell disaster in the close-knit community. In a quietly shattering climax, the veil of propriety is lifted and neither woman can return unscathed to her previous, masked existence.



Parting Shot

Oscar-winning Chilean-Argentine director Sebastián Lelio co-wrote the script with Rebecca Lenkiewicz, based on the 2006 debut novel by Naomi Alderman. Interestingly, the creation of the novel actually led to Alderman’s own rejection of her Jewish faith. As she said to The Guardian in 2016, “I went into the novel religious and by the end I wasn’t. I wrote myself out of it.”

Clearly the film (and the novel before it) can be conveniently translated as an indictment of closed, orthodox and patriarchal religious sects. Ronit and Esti have each paid the price for hiding the very truth of what they are and who they love. The core values inherent in the story obviously resonate on a Feminist paradigm. But lest we resort to a convenient condemnation of the authoritarian world from which Ronit fled years before and which basically swallowed Esti whole, the film seems to suggest something less abusive, more complex. It resides in the character of Dovid. He is – perhaps ironically – the unsung hero of the story, a modern, conflicted and nuanced man trying to come to terms with the schism between the tenets of a dogmatic faith and the humanistic values urging him to embrace the truth of his beloved wife.

I am reminded of that other fine film from 1998 (starring Rene Zellweger,) A Price Above Rubies, about another young woman longing to escape the confines of an Orthodox Jewish life. In that film too, the husband seems almost as trapped as his wife, stuck in a pre-ordained role from which there is no independent navigation. In this film, in the transfixing climactic scene, Dovid speaks to the congregants assembled and refers to the words of the deceased rabbi (Ronit’s father) having to do with the freedom of choice, indeed the freedom inherent in Humanity. In one simple yet galvanizing moment outside the temple, a single embrace speaks volumes where words are not necessary. If Disobedience is a Feminist tale writ small, the reverberations within the story are suggestive of a larger truth. Meaning this: at the heart of Feminism beats the identical heart of Humanism. The lesson is not won or lost by either gender exclusively.

Disobedience is presently streaming on Amazon Prime.

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YouTube Trailer:

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