Having launched her career with the double-whammy success of Mean Girls and The Notebook in 2004 and then spending most of the time since in somewhat insubstantial works before her Academy Award-nominated turn in Spotlight, this latest effort from Chilean director Sebastian Lelio sees Rachel McAdams deliver another knockout performance as Esti Kuperman, a wife and teacher conflicted between the expectations of the Jewish Orthodox community in which she lives and her reignited passion for a childhood friend who has returned home for her father’s funeral. Lelio, whose most recent feature was the wonderful A Fantastic Woman, has presented McAdams with another vehicle to showcase her talents and the 40-year-old actress has grabbed the opportunity with both hands.
To be fair, McAdams doesn’t do all the heavy lifting here as the underrated Alessandro Nivola and the always dependable Rachel Weisz are also excellent in a film in which the performances, above all else, make for a compelling examination of the conflict and constraint of traditional belief systems that are rooted in archaic, and very narrow, understandings of sexuality and sexual identity. Esti, Dovid and Ronit were childhood friends, with the latter having been shunned by the community many years earlier for indulging in a relationship with Esti. Now a photographer based in New York, Ronit (Weisz) returns home to England following the passing of her father Rav, a highly respected Rabbi and head honcho at the local synagogue. It goes without saying that Ronit’s return causes considerable consternation within the community and significant upheaval within the Kuperman home. Having married the devout Dovid (Nivola), ostensibly to avoid being paired off with somebody she didn’t know or care about at all, every aspect of Esti’s marriage is dictated by the church, including a bout of passionless sex with her husband every Friday.
Upon Ronit’s return, Esti’s desires are reignited and the two women find themselves embroiled in a rekindling of their carnal couplings. As a producer on the project, Weisz had considerable input into the editing of the sex scene between Ronit and Esti that plays out as erotic and empowering without ever being overly explicit or exploitative. This scene is fundamental in Esti finding release from the repression she has endured on a day-to-day basis for so long. Esti’s orgasm is likely the first she has experienced since Ronit’s departure all those years ago and serves as the catalyst for her to re-evaluate the choices she has made. Interestingly, despite the obvious affection and desire the two women share, Lelio – who co-wrote the screenplay with Rebecca Lenkiewicz (who also penned Pawel Pawlikowski’s masterful Ida) – avoids falling into the trap of having the them ride off into the sunset arm-in-arm to live happily ever after together. Life, and love, is much more complex than that.
This is Lelio’s third feature in a row about the ways in which women find themselves repressed within their communities and he seems genuinely empathetic to the characters and what they represent. With Disobedience he is reluctant to tarnish anybody as villain, balancing his portrayal of Orthodox Judaism to show that, whilst the belief systems are strict, the community is close-knit and offers many social benefits that have, to some extent, filled the void for Esti in the wake of Ronit’s departure. Lelio never sets out to demonise the church or its beliefs and the fact that Ronit is welcomed back into the fold, albeit tentatively and perhaps only in the short term to partake in the rituals that follow her father’s death, suggests a greater tolerance from the community than Ronit affords them in return. This is an austere piece of filmmaking that, largely through the performances of the leads and the somewhat closed-off nature of the community in which events unfold, remains riveting until the end.