Rachel Weisz (left) and Rachel McAdams steal an intimate moment in  "Disobedience." (Photo/Agatha A. Nitecka, Bleecker Street)
Rachel Weisz (left) and Rachel McAdams steal an intimate moment in "Disobedience." (Photo/Agatha A. Nitecka, Bleecker Street)

‘Disobedience’ avoids tradition vs. modernity trope to tell truly original story

Sebastián Lelio’s beautifully wrought film “Disobedience” is a small miracle. A close-up portrait of three 30-something British Jews grappling with their respective sexual and religious truths, it is a timeless saga that feels utterly contemporary.

It’s a film that probably couldn’t have been made even 10 years ago, because it assumes and addresses a world — or at least a generation or two — that is perfectly comfortable with the fluidity of sexual identity. “Disobedience” comes from a place where homosexual and bisexual relationships aren’t abnormal or unhealthy, even if they are still taboo in some subcultures.

Adapted from Naomi Alderman’s 2006 novel of the same name, “Disobedience” takes a familiar concept — the return of the prodigal child years after she left her Orthodox Jewish family and community — and spins it on a fresh and unexpected axis.

This type of drama usually has been framed as a dialectic between faith and secularism, tradition and modernity. The emotional punch typically derives from sympathetic individuals bulldozed by a patriarchy portrayed as tyrannical and anachronistic.

But the conflict in “Disobedience” isn’t between people on opposite sides of an irreconcilable philosophical divide, which would inevitably propel the viewer to identify with one protagonist and condemn the others. Rather, the divide is within each person: Who am I, and what hard choices do I need to make right now to live an authentic, satisfying life?

One refreshing consequence is that “Disobedience” has no villains whose roles are to constrain and injure the characters. Furthermore, because the stakes are personal and individual, the film neatly sidesteps and/or backgrounds big-picture questions such as the modern world’s challenges and threats to the Orthodox community.

The movie opens with the elderly London rabbi of a small shul collapsing in mid-sermon. On the other side of the Atlantic, a dark-haired photographer named Ronit (Rachel Weisz) shoots a man adorned with tattoos.

The introduction of Ronit in conjunction with one of Judaism’s prohibitions (tattoos) instantly illustrates the distance she’s put between her upbringing and her current life. In New York, she is Roni — the self-renaming a common act of assimilation.

In a succession of quick shots, Ronit receives the bad news, has anonymous sex with a male stranger and, finally alone, tears her sweater in a Jewish gesture of mourning. The gifted Chilean filmmaker Lelio, who adapted the novel with British playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz, immediately delineates a wild child who isn’t happy in the present nor reconciled to her past.

“Disobedience” stars (from left) Rachel Weisz as Ronit, Rachel McAdams as Esti and Alessandro Nivola as Dovid (Photo/Agatha A. Nitecka, Bleecker Street)
“Disobedience” stars (from left) Rachel Weisz as Ronit, Rachel McAdams as Esti and Alessandro Nivola as Dovid (Photo/Agatha A. Nitecka, Bleecker Street)

Ronit’s return to London for her respected father’s funeral isn’t welcomed by relatives and other members of the congregation, and we get vague hints about the circumstances that led to her self-imposed exile. (Hers was the first act of disobedience, but it won’t be the last.) She receives a slightly warmer reception from the heir to the late rabbi’s pulpit, the perpetually restrained Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), and his demure wife, Esti (Rachel McAdams), who had been, shall we say, exceptionally close to Ronit in their younger years.

We expect the film to portray Ronit as a troubled heroine for choosing a “liberated” life and as the awkward outsider enduring a loss without much support. Lelio’s previous films, “A Fantastic Woman” (last year’s Oscar-winning portrait of a grieving transgender woman) and “Gloria” (about an older woman who willfully pursues a romance with a problematic man), conveyed his respect for women who defy the opprobrium of others.

Ronit, however, behaves so selfishly and inappropriately that we empathize with the insult the Orthodox characters feel. Disobedience is a form of rebellion, but people aren’t automatically entitled to hurt others, or to jeopardize their jobs and relationships, in the course of expressing their nonconformity.

And that is the crux of Ronit’s entanglement with Esti and, to a lesser degree, Dovid. The great satisfaction of “Disobedience” is the skill with which Lelio subtly interweaves their desires and responsibilities.

By the end of this terrific film, the various markers and labels that describe and constrain the characters have been scrubbed away. They are simply human beings, trying to do the right thing.

“Disobedience” opens Friday, May 4 at the Embarcadero Center Cinemas in S.F. and the Albany Twin in the East Bay. Rated R, 114 minutes. In English with some Hebrew prayers.

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle. He is the curator and host of the CinemaLit film series at the Mechanics’ Institute and teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.