Set in an orthodox north London Jewish enclave during a cold, grey early winter much like this one, Disobedience feels like home.
Hendon is where my Mum grew up and where I spent many a Saturday, watching the ‘frummers’ walk to synagogue and back. It’s where this film is set and so it’s coming home for Rachel Weisz, too, I should imagine. Like the actress herself, her character Ronit lives a creative life in New York but a sudden phone call brings her back to where she grew up.
Ronit’s father, Rav Krishna, the chief rabbi of this particular community, has died and the traditional week of mourning is in full flow, prayers being held at the house of Dovid Kuperman, an earnest young man who appears to be the Rav’s favourite student and thus his obvious heir apparent.
Ronit is coolly received at first and it becomes clear she has been somewhat ex-communicated from this world. Yet Dov (American actor Alessandro Nivola, excellent, even to the accent and the beard) still welcomes her, a residue of affection (maybe it’s more that that?) from a shared childhood. Ronit is shocked, though, to discover Dov is now married to Esti (played by Rachel McAdams).
Again, there seems to be a deep, shared bond between these two, one that has been shut away, covered like the all the mirrors in the house of mourning, like the hair of all the Orthodox women under their fulsome sheitel wigs.
“You look so… New York,” says Esti, eyeing Ronit.
“You look so.. frum,” blurts back Ronit, using the Yiddish word for devout.
Before long, the emotions, resentments and passions bubble up, even over the Shabbat dinner. “It’s important this week is conducted with honour,” intones one uncle, and you know that’s exactly what’s not going to happen. Unless what is being honoured is the truth.
To divulge more would be disobedient. But both actresses are superb here, with Weisz in particular better than I can ever recall her. She seems particularly engaged and enthused by this part, something about Ronit she understands intuitively.
I loved the tussle between secular and the sacred, particularly viewed through the prism of female desire. There’s a great scene in a Kosher supermarket, all the products closing in, their symbols of religious conformity squeezing into the frame. If a toothpaste or box of cornflakes can be blessed by the Chief Rabbi, why can’t Ronit receive the same stamp of approval?
Remarkable though all three lead performances are, a special mazeltov must be reserved for the film’s director, Sebastian Lelio, who’s not exactly from Golders Green or Hendon, but Santiago in Chile. Somehow, he gets the light, the houses, the slate grey of the Jewish cemetery (I always feel so cold at Jewish funerals), the cadences of Anglo-Jewry, the damp green of a local park. The words of Naomi Alderman’s source novel melt into his images, aided no doubt by cinematographer Danny Cohen.
I’ve written about Lelio here before, with his excellent studies of an older woman in Gloria and in his Oscar-winning film about a trans singer, A Fantastic Woman and in a way, Disobedience is his biggest act of empathy as a director yet. It’s sexy and intelligent, spiritual and physical, a rage against God and dogma but deeply respectful.
Disobedience, then, is nothing but faithful, to its original novel and to its trapped characters and what remains is a powerful tribute to the resilience of the heart.