Disobedience is Chilean director Sebastian Lelio’s first English language film, a north-west London-set drama, based on the 2006 novel by Naomi Alderman. Compared to his previous film, 2017’s A Fantastic Woman, this is a downbeat, subtle story of two women who grew up in an orthodox Jewish community.
Ronit (Rachel Weisz) returns to London from New York following the death of her rabbi father, the first time she has been back since leaving as a teenager. The tensions which drove her out are gradually revealed as she rekindles relationships that were brutally fractured all those years ago.
The streets of Hendon are suitably drab as Ronit visits her old haunts, and the homes she enters are stuffy and dark. “No, the windows don’t open,” she is informed while unpacking in her temporary bedroom.
Ronit’s New York cool and her life as a trendy photographer mark her out in the community of soberly dressed women wearing wigs. But her composure is rattled when she discovers that Esti (Rachel McAdams), with whom she had a sexual relationship as a teen, is now married to their old friend Dovid, set to be her father’s successor as rabbi.
Esti has suppressed her desires and resigned herself to married life in the community. Ronit’s return now threatens the pragmatic compromise she made with herself and the people around her.
The film opens with Ronit’s father’s last sermon, where he discusses the question of free will and choice, and these are the themes which run through the rest of the film. He talks about how animals have no choice but to act in accordance with how god made them, while people must decide how to live.
Later on, as Esti and Ronit finally act on their attraction, they communicate only in grunts and moans — they abandon the language, the rituals and the physical caution that permeates the rest of the film.
Their excellent performances, along with Alessandro Nivola as Dovid, make this a powerful, quiet and thoughtful film.