Chilean director Sebastian Lelio follows up his Oscar-winning “A Fantastic Woman” with this adaptation of Naomi Alderman’s novel about a woman who returns to the London Hasidic community she left years earlier for her father’s funeral, only to renew the forbidden relationship she once had with another girl, now married to the man who was a close friend of them both (as well as her father’s chief disciple). “Disobedience” is lovingly crafted, but it never builds the emotional power it’s clearly aiming for—partially because the treatment feels oddly detached, but especially since it is structured so schematically.
“Disobedience” begins and ends with sermons on free will in the synagogue. The first is offered by aged Ravi Kruschka (Anton Lesser), who distinguishes man, who has the power to choose, from both the angels and the devils, who do not. In the middle of his discourse he collapses into the arms of his devoted pupil Dovid (Alessandro Nivola).
News of his death is conveyed to his daughter Ronit (Rachel Weisz), a fashion photographer in New York, where she consorts with the famous and infamous. After giving way to the pleasures of the flesh—alcohol, sex, drugs—she makes arrangements to fly home for her father’s funeral and deal with her inheritance.
She is received coldly by almost everyone except Dovid, who invites her to stay in his home. Even Dovid’s wife Esti (Rachel McAdams), once Ronit’s closest friend, is standoffish, as is Ronit’s uncle Moshe (Allan Corduner), who informs her that her father had left his house to the community, not to her. Mention of her very existence has even been omitted from her father’s obituary. The situation does not improve when Ronit parades her unorthodox attitudes before the community, and only Dovid and her aunt (Bernice Stegers) offer any understanding at all.
The major shift comes when Esti joins Ronit in visiting her late father’s home and, moved by a song on the radio, impulsively kisses her, unlocking old feelings on both sides that could very well have led to Ronit’s departure from the community. The newly-released longings are reflected, too obviously in fact, in the texts that Dovid and Esti are teaching in their respective community classes: he is debating the meaning of the sensual “Song of Songs” with his students, while she and her girls are discussing “Othello.” The themes of both take on real-world implications as the passion between Ronit and Esti intensifies and Dovid discovers their relationship. He will have to confront his feelings, but also the question of free will that his teacher raised at the very beginning of the film.
“Disobedience” valiantly attempts to treat its subject, controversial particularly because of the community in which it is set, from both emotional and intellectual perspectives. That’s a laudable aim, but in trying to achieve a balance between mind and heart, it shortchanges both. Weisz and McAdams work very hard to bring their characters fully to life, but while both offer nuanced turns, neither character is, by the end, completely realized; they remain more symbols than actual human beings.
Indeed, the most powerful characterization is offered by Nivola, who expresses both Dovid’s essential goodness and the stricken dilemma he faces when he realizes his wife’s unfaithfulness with utter conviction. The remaining characters are drawn, and played, more sketchily, but the actors do their best with them.
Nor does Lelio’s direction seem as assured as it was in “A Fantastic Woman.” To be sure, he, cinematographer Danny Cohen and editor Nathan Nugent are aiming for a different style here—one, in gritty, somber black-and-white, that reflects the emotional tone of the rigid community disrupted by the women’s uncontrollable passion. While it’s impressively rendered, however, it feels as constricting as the high degree of regimentation the group places upon its members. The makers do portray the beauty inherent in the community—the periodic depictions of its services, with the accompanying prayer chants, are aesthetically pleasing—but the overall impression is one of repression contrasted with the liberation that Ronit represents. Yet that, in the final analysis, is deceptive, for her freedom hardly brings her joy.
“Disobedience” is one of those films that one can respect without fully embracing it on an emotional level. It is clearly deeply felt and at times quite explicit, and yet comes across as strangely remote. So while it will provoke, ultimately it fails to fully satisfy.