Movie Review: Defiance, despair and disowned lead to “Disobedience”

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“Disobedience” is a finely-acted tenterhooks drama about religion, sexuality, tradition and isolation. It is a movie grounded in a rigid hierarchy and ritual, but with a cruel undercurrent of despair. But it takes flight on a trio of brittle, biting and heartbreaking performances by Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams and Alessandro Nivola.

There’s only one moral high ground from which to criticize any religion, and that’s to be free of any religion yourself.

This is where Ronit “Ronnie” Krushka (Weisz) plants her flag. She came from an insular religious community, was intimate with its mores, rituals, traditional dress and text.

It could be any community of the most faithful of the faithful, conservatives not just out to conserve, but to roll back the clock on the modern age — the Amish, Mormons, Protestant Fundamentalists or Muslim primitivists, though nobody dares make movies about Islam’s most primitive fringe.

In Ronnie’s case, it is the Torah-centric myopia of Orthodox Judaism which she escaped, and which she challenges still. She may have flown home to London from New York, may crave just enough acceptance from “the community” to be able to mourn her just-died father, a revered Rebbe who disowned her, long ago.

The only condolence she gets from the Orthodox she left behind is “May you live a long life.” Here, that greeting/blessing is a dismissal, a “Nobody wants you here, heretic.”

Ronnie fights this with modern, real-world sarcasm in the form of casual non-Orthodox pleasantries.

“Want a cigarette?”

What’s she think of their practices?

Medieval.”

She can’t get a hug from her old friend Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), her rabbi/teacher/mentor father’s favorite pupil, because of the primitive sexism of the culture.

She can’t get a straight answer about the old man’s estate from her uncle (Allan Corduner) because she’s asking at shabbat (sabbath) dinner.

And she can’t get over the shock of realizing whom her old friend Dovid married. He tied the knot with Esti (McAdams). Having history with the both of them doesn’t make staying in their house before her father’s leveya (funeral) easy.

If you’ve seen the TV ads for “Disobedience,” you know that the movie’s efforts at hiding just who Ronnie has “real” history with are disingenuous. Weisz plays the unguarded intimacy she feels with Dovid as if she’ll never give away the game.

But she and Esti used to be a thing. It was a scandal. The Rav was mortified, and his obituaries say he died “childless.” Esti seems irked at Ronnie’s return. Should she stay in a hotel?

“Do what you want.

And the congregation, which figures Dovid is the next spiritual leader of the community, is shaken. Is he the King of his Castle, or what?

dis2.pngSebastián Lelio’s film, based on the Naomi Alderman novel, challenges Orthodoxy for its rigidity, its myopia and its sexism. Weisz gives Ronnie a barely-restrained contempt for this crowd she once fled, but a contempt mixed with a need for acceptance — just enough to send off her unbending old man on his terms.

And she can’t even get that.

Nivolla (“American Hustle”) is far more subtle in depicting Dovid’s conflicts — a desire to do the decent thing, an awareness of what that constitutes in the modern world, but an overriding need for “honor” to be preserved.

McAdams gives the most startling performance. Esti is wounded, lost, a sell-out reconsidering what she surrendered. It is through her that we experience the film’s profound grasp of what it is like to love a certain way, to need acceptance and understanding from those closest to you, and how failing to get that could be so devastating.

The film which the grey, forlorn “Disobedience” compares most to is one seemingly unlike it in too many important ways. The Oscar nominated tale of sexual awakening “Call Me By Your Name” is sunny, coming-of-age tolerant and tentative, where “Disobedience” has the adult complexity of living with this life nature has foisted upon you.

“Tolerance” is one subtext the films share, as well as sex scenes which exist for some prurient shock value, and little else. There’s a tenderness in this unequal relationship, this time, even if the “How lesbians copulate” primer is just as much of a cheap come-on as “Name’s” sex-with-fruit infamy.

But the adult nature of the affair, long-ago remembered, makes “Disobedience” sit easier on the memory.  Weisz’s fierce playing of Ronnie’s confrontations with men not used to being confronted by a woman are worth relishing, and McAdams’ soulful plea for a life without the lie, without the suffering of denying who she fundamentally is for the sake of a sect that is merely a 19th century reboot of Jewish practices long ago discounted, touch the very soul.

Lelio makes certain his stars get to play around with the comical implausibility that both women see in this “life,” were marriage “is “an institutional choice,” where genetics and the accident of birth are a life sentence to wearing wigs in public, sex on Friday nights and segregated worship services straight out of the dark ages.

But this trap is no laughing matter, one and all agree. It’s a world where getting the unbendable to bend, just a little bit, can be the difference between misery and happiness, life and no life at all. It’s no wonder this dogma breeds “Disobedience.” Western Civilization demands it.

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MPAA Rating: R for some strong sexuality

Cast: Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams, Alessandro Nivola, Allan Corduner

Credits:Directed by Sebastián Lelio, script by Sebastián Lelio and Rebecca Lenkiewicz, based on the Naomi Alderman novel. A Bleecker St. release.

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