Sebastián Lelio‘s Disobedience (2017) could have been a film on forbidden love, but it was way smarter than that – it’s a story of self-love, the love of life that is in our nature, the blessed disobedience of flesh. The wild card in a tapered deck.
Played with luminous, irreverent intelligence by Rachel Weisz (also, the film’s producer), Ronit is a New York photographer in her forties, taking pics of rough tattooed men with a kindness of a kindred. Then she gets a call, her father is dead. He was the old Rav of an Orthodox Jewish community in North London, and they were not in touch. Ronit escaped, taking her past with her. She will now be bringing it back.
In those few NYC shots we get to see of the urbane Ronit grieving – the devastation beneath the rebellion reveals itself, the price of an untamed heart.
When the estranged daughter returns to the hood, Ronit’s more than a misfit, she’s an unwanted guest at her own father’s funeral, his hidden, yet obviously public disgrace. But an old friend, Dovid – the Rav’s disciple (a beautifully subdued Alessandro Nivola) – invites her to stay at his family home, and it’s a sparkly vibe they have, there is a fire there, someone’s kept Ronit’s presence going.
Then the real flame soundlessly strolls in, a sweet little twister, and the measure of the daughter’s subversion becomes clear. Ronit’s childhood sweetheart is Dovid’s wife, the intense, quiet, honest Esti (a soulful, gutsy Rachel McAdams), she’s a teacher in the local school, genuinely true to her tradition, with a heart that beats to an entirely different drum.
Based on a novel by Naomi Alderman, Disobedience follows the gentle, steady road to understanding a life led in an environment of strict rules, yet with chains that are self-imposed, carefully balancing the cherishing of one’s heritage with a longing that is entirely individual. And although love for Ronit leads Esti astray from her beliefs, it’s her nature that defines the passion, not the other way around. So she throws herself back into the fire, like a moth to the proverbial flame, breathing it in like it’s life itself, shining all the bright colours under the monochrome frum, much like a spinning carousel on a wide, empty heath. Straight to the place where they first kissed.
There is a stunning scene, when Ronit and Esti run for lust, a dozen rides down the tube line, emerging at Piccadilly Circus, and they are in a different world, where their love does not bat an eyelid.
Everything is at stake for Esti. And that is clear from the start. Ronit has the hollow pain, but also the independence, the men, the struggle to let Esti fully in. Dovid has the heartache of unrequited love, but equally the standing in the community, his principles, a reluctance to change everything for the requirements of what he knows to be the truth.
Esti has nothing, except a peace of mind, acquired through years of devout life, yet is willing to leave all that is known and safe behind in order to live authentically.
At the crossroads of an inner pilgrimage, Ronit requires acceptance, while Esti requires to be set free – and both find their center. Dovid, its surprising fulcrum.
Like a Chopin piece.