There are so many words in the English language that carry an aura of negativity. You see them, say them, think them, and all you can conjure up is an image of something that went wrong, something that wasn’t quite right. “Disobedience” is such a label. Anyone who is seen as being disobedient is an outcast. They don’t behave the way society expects them to behave. Yet what if those actions that make them disobedient, and that which break away from the norm, are also the only path to live a happy, positive life?
After learning her father has died, Disobedience’s Ronit (Rachel Weisz), who has been going by the name Ronnie, returns to the England and to the Orthodox Jewish community she grew up in. She’s there to pay her respects to the rabbi who was seemingly a father to everyone but her. With no original plans to stay very long, she heads straight to the home of her childhood friend, Dovid (played by an almost unrecognizable Alessandro Nivola).
He was her father’s greatest pupil, and it is at his home, where everyone gathers for the first stage of a very long goodbye, that Ronit comes face-to-face with her path. For also in attendance is her and Dovid’s other childhood friend, Esti (a sublime Rachel McAdams)—and Esti is now Dovid’s wife. Tensions begin to build almost immediately, and the past begins to repeat itself, reliving why Ronit left and never came back; her sexual relationship with her best friend Esti, who is still all too hopeful to continue it decades later.
What works so well about Disobedience, which is based on the debut novel by Naomi Alderman, is that is about so much more than just a relationship between two women. The power and resilience they both end up commanding is just as important to a myriad of possible situations in this world. You can take the circumstances and trials of Ronit, Esti, and Dovid and plug them into any subsect of society, any religion, any staunch and stubborn family ideology, and come up with the same moral outcome without losing a beat.
Yet this doesn’t make the story of Disobedience a simple one. There are layers to be peeled away and studied in order to gain the full understanding of what love is, what friendship is, and what family is. Moving it from page to screen could have been a giant mishap, but co-writer and director Sebastián Lelio did a fantastic job balancing the entire piece; especially when it came to the traditions of the Orthodox Jewish community. Not everyone who sees this film will know or understand the religion’s practices, but at no point are they explained or written out for anyone. If you know, you know. If not, it doesn’t get in the way.
There is one word though that stuck in my head, all throughout the film and in the days after; natural. I felt I was watching life, and not actors portraying it. The three leads all excel in their performances, with Rachel McAdams truly showing what a great performance should be. Subtle and timid, you can feel the river rushing inside her as she never lets an over embellished look or emotion escape her face. Similarly, I’ll go ahead and say that this is Alessandro Nivola’s greatest performance. I knew it was him on screen, and I have seen him so many times before; and yet, every time Dovid was in a scene, Alessandro was not. He became the man he was portraying and all that was left was Dovid’s stubbornness blocking any real emotion, until his final glorious and devastating epiphany.
Disobedience on its surface is a film about two women who finally learn to break free of what is expected of them by finding each other again. But at its core, it is a story about finding true freedom, and using it to finally understand real happiness, even if it means not getting what you want—and that is an important lesson for all to understand.