It Photographs Well, But: Inauthenticity in “Disobedience”

May 16, 2018

Sebastián Lelio’s latest reduces religious lesbian’s dilemma to its lowest term

There’s big buzz for Sebastián Lelio’s new pic Disobedience. And why not? The film is about two women reigniting their lesbian affair inside an Orthodox Jewish community in London, England. On top of that, the movie stars two accomplished actresses: Rachel Weisz as the emancipated Ronit, coming back home and reconnecting with Esti, played by Rachel McAdams. Sexy, right?

Adding to the buzz is the director’s spectacular roll, having released movies that show an uncommon empathy and understanding of his female characters. Call him the Chilean Francois Ozon. His movie A Fantastic Woman, about a trans woman traumatized when her lover dies, won last year’s Foreign Language Oscar. His big 2013 hit Gloria, about a middle-aged woman looking for love in the club scene, played at TIFF and is currently undergoing an American remake with Julianne Moore.

But there’s something nagging at me about Disobedience that makes it seem lesser than his two previous major successes. It has to do with authenticity. Fear not: I’m not pressing an incendiary argument about appropriation: Lelio made a brilliant film about a transgender women without himself being trans. Rather, it’s more that the essential inner conflict of Disobedience‘s characters misses the mark: Lelio never really shows what’s keeping Esti inside her community – except for shame, which reduces her dilemma to its lowest terms.

(There’s also a wonky plot element in which Esti’s husband Dovid (Alessandro Nivola) invites Ronit, as soon as she arrives, to stay with him and Esti, while knowing of their previous affair. Really?)

To be fair, there’s a lot that’s really good about Disobedience. It looks terrific, and the chemistry between the Rachels is palpable. Both women deliver excellent performances. We’ve come to expect that from Weisz, but McAdams, who started out as a romcom staple, has, since Spotlight, turned into a performer with a huge range.

Disobedience is based on the novel of the same name by Naomi Alderman. Lelio, along with his co-writer Rebecca Lenkiewicz, made a savvy change while adapting the book. In the original, Ronit has left London and decamped to New York City, where she has become financial analyst. In the film, Ronit is a fashion photographer, a tweak which opens ups new possibilities in the script. After Ronit and Esti make love, Ronit takes her picture, which turns into a subtle commentary on the female gaze.

But the basic conflict in the film – exactly what’s tearing Esti apart – fails to resonate. Some of the problem lies with the fact that the novel is told from the point of view of Ronit. Lelio attempts to give the narrative three equal strands — Ronit’s, Esti’s and Dovid’s — and it works well as a narrative, but the arc of the plot still tilts away from Esti and towards the woman who left her community.

That makes it different from both Gloria and A Fantastic Woman, in which Lelio relentlessly hones in on a single character and her emotional truth. For Gloria, about a middle-aged woman looking for love and finding it, he wrote the script after he cast the great Pauline Garcia. The film doesn’t exist without her, written as it was with her constant consultation on everything, including the dance moves on the club floor, which, though choreographed, are almost entirely hers. And the inspiration for the film comes from Lelio’s own mother, so he is connected to the material in real ways.

In the case of A Fantastic Woman, Lelio had been consulting with trans actress Daniella Vega while prepping his script, and then had the genius brain wave that she ought to play the grieving Marina. No wonder every second of that film feels authentic.

With Disobedience, Lelio walks on unfamiliar ground. In interviews, he referred to the Orthodox enclave as alien territory and that he treated it like a science fiction story. He consulted with eight experts, plus author Alderman, on the practices and attitudes of an Orthodox Jewish community, how it functions, and how it protects itself against the outside world. Visually, things ring true; the men’s tallith, the long coats, the women’s wigs, the atmosphere in the synagogue — it all feels legitimate.

But he worries about the setting without giving enough consideration to Esti’s motivations, failing to get inside Esti’s head in a way that makes us sure about where her conflict lies. The film tends to focus on two ideas: that repression in Orthodox communities gets in the way of sexual expression, which is more abstraction than anything else, and that shame is what’s stopping Esti from embracing her relationship with Ronit and leaving.

To be sure, that last bit counts for something – but, in real life, not for everything. If you look at Sandi Simcha Dubowski’s 2001 documentary Trembling Before G-d, about queer couples trying to reconcile their sexuality with their religion, the dilemma tends to be more complex. It’s not only a case of, “I’m gay but I can’t leave because I’ll be shunned,” but rather a matter of, “I’m gay and I don’t wont to leave,” period.

Why? Because their yearning for spiritual fulfillment within Judaism is real. They want to be a couple; they want keep making the challahs and celebrating the Sabbath. They want a connection with each other – and with their God. But we never see Esti as a happy practicing Jew, reveling in her role, her community, or her spiritual commitment. Demonstrating what’s at stake in leaving her community would have given her dilemma a great deal more heft.

The repression factor – and Ronit’s decision to leave the community years before – makes sense to an emancipated, western, mostly non-Jewish audience. And the shame element is easy to take in by the audience Disobedience is plainly seeking.

But for many Jews, that commitment to Judaism is real, and shouldn’t necessarily have to conflict with their sexuality. The LGBTQ community has been locked into this debate for decades, with members questioning their queer brothers and sisters about why they insist on maintaining their spiritual commitments. On the other hand, there are religious congregations of all stripes that are trying to welcome LGBTQ members and, indeed, many gays and lesbians have been critical of Trembling Before G-d because the film doesn’t consider that possibility within more liberal Jewish congregations for the film’s subjects.

Regardless, practicing Jews will likely feel like Disobedience doesn’t deal with any of these complexities, which, even though the film has its fascinations, makes it less credible than the Lelio’s other celebrated movies.