This review explores the representation of the collision between religion and sexuality in Sebastián Lelio’s film Disobedience (2018). Angelica De Vido is a DPhil candidate in English, whose research investigates representations of girlhood, gender, and sexuality in American culture post-1990.
Film, Sexuality, Religion
Based on Naomi Alderman’s 2006 novel, Disobedience (2018) is a compelling emotional drama that explores the complex relationship between religion and sexuality, as two women’s love for each other collides with their community’s beliefs. The narrative centres on the relationship between Ronit (Rachel Weisz), who returns to her childhood home in North London for her father’s funeral, and the members of the Orthodox Jewish community in which she spent her adolescence with her best friend, Esti (Rachel McAdams).
The film opens with Ronit’s father (Anton Lesser), the Rabbi, delivering a sermon wherein he ponders the nature of free will. This question of free will, and the control each of us has over our lives and behaviour, is one that remains the narrative crux of this film. As Ronit’s father teaches, and the film purports, we must each be brave enough to choose the individual lives we want to live, no matter how difficult that decision may be.
Director Sebastián Lelio presents Ronit as a symbol of rebellion against the Orthodox community in which she spent her younger years. This is immediately presented in the film’s opening scenes, which document Ronit’s current bohemian life in New York, where she is depicted drinking and smoking in bars and engaging in casual sex with strangers. This rejection of the conservative customs of the Orthodox community is visually underlined when she returns to her father’s home upon hearing the news of his death, and her long wavy hair stands in stark opposition to the bobbed and neatly straightened hair of the “frum” women.
This community is presented as a rigidly patriarchal world, where women are to obey their husbands and fathers at all times. However, akin to her rejection of this order through her appearance, Ronit further angers the locals by refusing to observe such gendered customs as women not discussing business with men – most explosively witnessed when she will not accept her uncle’s refusal to discuss selling her father’s house, of which she is the heir.
Through this ‘rebellious’ behaviour Ronit initially appears to be a foil for her childhood best friend, Esti. Unlike the bright visual milieu of Ronit’s wild life in New York, Lelio utilises a grey mise-en-scène to visually underscore Esti’s passionless life in London. After Ronit left London for New York, Esti married her childhood friend, Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), upon the encouragement of the Rabbi. Although Dovid is presented as a gentle, kind man who loves Esti, the film underscores the oppression and monotony of Esti’s domestic married life through montaging her repetitive daily routine of making food for her husband, putting on her “frum” clothes and wig for work, and then starting this routine all over again the next day.
In a tremendous, nuanced performance, McAdams portrays Esti as a woman whose subdued passions only truly come to the surface when she is with Ronit. Indeed, when they are in Ronit’s father’s house alone – the space where their love for each other first blossomed as adolescents – to the viewer’s surprise, it is Esti who takes the lead and initiates their first kiss after all their years apart. Esti resents Ronit for leaving, feeling abandoned and forced to follow the conventional life of marriage and domesticity expected of women in her community due to this decision.
It is never revealed specifically why Ronit left London. However, it is suggested that it was because her father discovered her and Esti together, and banished her from the community due to the extreme shame he felt. Esti reveals to Ronit that after she left, and after their relationship was discovered, members of the community told her that she was “ill in the head,” and the Rabbi encouraged her to marry Dovid in order to “cure” her and her homosexual attractions. Her relationship with Ronit seemingly sparked an inner turmoil which Esti has never managed to escape, revealed when Ronit asks her, “What happened to you, Esti?” to which she responds, “You did.” In a moment of devastating repetition, when Ronit and Esti rekindle their affair, they are again caught by a member of the community, who reports Esti to the headteacher of the school where she teaches. After this incident, Esti tells Ronit that they “need to stop this, we need to lead a good life.” Here, Esti expresses the internalised community beliefs that a “good life” is one that involves heterosexual marriage, children, and obeying religious doctrine, thus illuminating her own painful indecision as to which life path to choose – the one that feels right, or the one she has been taught is right.
The fact that they are caught together again underlines the seemingly impossible nature of their relationship in this community, and the film suggests that theirs is a love that can only be truly expressed and experienced in private. To this end, the two women begin to visit a hotel room in central London to spend time together out of the gaze of others. The liberation they feel in this private world together is underlined when Esti takes off her wig as soon as they enter the hotel room, and begins to smoke with Ronit, as though she is now finally free to be her true self and to shake off the façade and shackles of her daily life.
However, this bliss cannot last forever, and when her husband finds out about her affair with Ronit, he screams at Esti, “What’s wrong with you?”, as he cannot comprehend the women’s love for each other in any other form than as a perversion and “illness”. However, Esti defends herself against his accusations that she has been corrupted and poisoned by Ronit when she explains that, “It’s always been this way, I have always wanted it!” For her, the love she has for Ronit feels natural, whereas it is her relationship with Dovid that feels “wrong”.
Ronit encourages Esti to leave Dovid and come to New York with her, but Esti feels unable to escape the grasp of her community without receiving Dovid’s permission to leave, pleading with him, “Please give me my freedom.” Dovid is presented as a sympathetic character, who loves his wife and will do anything to make her happy, yet he simultaneously feels trapped by the worry of bringing shame to the community through being seen to “condone” her relationship with Ronit. In this regard, both he and Esti are equally trapped by the customs of the community in which they live.
In the dramatic climax of the film, Dovid, now appointed the new Rabbi, shouts up at Esti in the Synagogue, “You are free!” – the film’s initial question of freedom coming full circle as Esti is finally granted her autonomy after all the years of feeling stifled and of living a lie. Led by superb performances, this film offers a sympathetic, complex portrait of the lives of the residents of this North London community, and akin to Lelio’s previous film, A Fantastic Woman (2017), Disobedience explores the struggle to negotiate experiences of sexuality and to experience personal autonomy through escaping a community’s tightly-enforced binds of oppressive conformity.