Oscar-winner Sebastián Lelio crafts his first English-language film about a lesbian love crushed by a conservative religious environment, but sadly forgets all the magic tricks to make it memorable.
Growing up in a small town in a country where having faith and attending church every Sunday is almost taken for granted, I know what it means to feel like there’s always someone checking on your every move. Although living in a proper religious community with all its rules and dogmas must be another story altogether, a similar, creeping feeling of oppression is something that could be experienced in other realities as well. Set in an Orthodox Jewish community in North London, DISOBEDIENCE pulls the lives of three childhood friends together and attempts to dissect them to expose their hardly concealed desires and weaknesses. The result is a dimly nuanced tale of longed-for passion and freedom whose only sin is lacking a compelling drive to be at least a bit less boring than it actually is.
The film opens with Rav Krushka (Anton Lesser) – the community’s spiritual guide – delivering a sermon on free will just a few moments before collapsing. As with many other religions, Judaism is a man’s world leaving women to suffocate in a patriarchal apparatus that hasn’t moved an inch for millennia. It’s rather funny that, although God has supposedly given us free will to choose between good and bad, men have elevated themselves as judges of others’ behaviours – taking upon themselves the right to allow their pals to do whatever they feel right while women only need to shut up and do as they’re told. The world of DISOBEDIENCE isn’t an exception – you can stay and conform, or leave and be shunned. While Esti (Rachel McAdams) stayed and was forced into a marriage as heteronormativity dictates, Ronit (Rachel Weisz) fled her father – the Rav himself – to live as a photographer in New York. The Rav’s death is the occasion of Esti’s and Ronit’s reunion for the latter had to come back home and met once again with her estranged family.
With so many threads to pull, Lelio must have had a script of great potential in his hands. Instead of turning it into a cinematic experience of exuding yet repressed lust culminating in a sex scene worthy of competing in the same league with Todd Haynes‘s CAROL, DISOBEDIENCE suffers from the same stiff aesthetics that dominates every stifling corner of the Kupermans’ house. Even the long-awaited scene in the hotel room feels almost unnatural and somehow awkward with the only thing lingering in everyone’s memories – and creating quite a ruckus – being one Rachel spitting into the other’s mouth.
Washed in a desaturated colour palette, the films maintains a certain grace and dignity while trying to dig into the complicated coils of a marriage doomed from its very start, the pressure and the expectation put on a single man’s shoulders, and the uncomfortable sight of these women too old to fight back the same patriarchal system that ensnared them and too accustomed to its moral chains to be supportive of whoever finally attempts to break them. No matter its noble intentions and its passionate cast, DISOBEDIENCE would have been a much more captivating tale of forbidden love if only it had freed itself of its own limitations.
Our thanks to the Cameo Cinema in Edinburgh for providing Serena’s ticket to the preview.