The Bock’s Office: ‘Disobedience’ a reflective rumination on religion
Everyone is at different steps in their relationship with God, but a movie such as “Disobedience” reminds us that of all the obstacles along the way, other people can either be our greatest strength or our ultimate undoing.
Life as a New York photographer is more than satisfying for British expatriate Ronnie (Rachel Weisz), but the past that she’s tried to put behind her comes rushing back when she learns about the death of her estranged father (Anton Lesser), a well-known and respected rabbi.
Her dutiful return to her London home for the funeral is met with an icy reception by the members of the Orthodox Jewish community who believe she’s turned her back on her family and faith by leaving. The only people glad to see Ronnie are her cousin Dovid (Alessandro Nivola) and her former best friend Esti (Rachel McAdams), the two of whom are now married, much to her shock.
While she navigates the difficult task of honoring her late father’s memory and handling his estate, old emotions begin bubbling up the more time she spends with Esti, their relationship more than mere friendship but no less scandalous in adulthood than it was when they were teenagers.
After starring in the Judaism-centric “Denial” as a fiercely proud Jewish woman, Weisz is on the opposite end of the spectrum as someone entirely at odds with her religion, or at least the Orthodox branch that demands adherence to tradition. Ronnie, who has moved away from her heritage in spirit and in name — her birth name is Ronit — isn’t far in portrayal from any other modern female character who has too many objections to list about her background, yet you can see in Weisz’s eyes the hurt of someone strategically forgotten, written out of the obituary and the will.
McAdams gives one of her best recent performances as Esti, conflicted about her own issues with the religion but also feeling a debt of gratitude to the community for helping her through dark times. And, while Ronnie dives back into their shared attraction, Esti’s combined hesitance and desire is palpable, less worried about upsetting her bond with her husband than getting a reputation.
Nivola’s Dovid isn’t oblivious, by the way — he’s aware immediately when he sees his cousin on his doorstep that her presence will upset his status, still harboring a wellspring of resentment for Ronnie’s abandonment and the larger reasons for it, not to mention becoming the surrogate child and protégé to the rabbi.
As for his marriage, you’ve never seen someone describe his life as “very happy” so unconvincingly. Unless it’s his wife’s stony face as she stands next to him.
The pointed observations of Naomi Alderman’s novel regarding the Orthodox denomination are conveyed with dynamic force when they need to be, but the strength of Sebastián Lelio’s direction is the equilibrium between painful restraint and the rare indulgence of passion. The stark surroundings of this neighborhood are nothing compared to the façade of the folks within it, who aren’t wholly unfriendly but are masters of passive judgment.
Like any study of religion on film, the approach is one of either reverence or indictment, and you can guess which is on display here. Still, it’s not so much a criticism as an examination of why and how personal conflicts develop within an insular environment and the struggle to stay true to yourself while also remaining pious.
The narrow focus of “Disobedience” makes it too small a story to be as effective as it ought to be, but its trio of stars give such strong showings that it’s hard not to sit up and take notice.
As a wise man notes early on, choices are key.