I am notoriously hard to impress when it comes to the depiction of Jewish life on film. I despise cliché Jewish characters, and when I encounter storylines framing Orthodox Jewish tradition as a monolithic villainous patriarchy, I get anger hives. I know of what I speak—I proudly grew up as an observant Jew, keeping Shabbat and Kosher, and I was shomer negiah. I attended a Lubavitch yeshiva and proclaimed the “Yechi” for all to hear. And then I went off the derech (“path” of religious observance), for many reasons. Sometimes I miss being part of that life so much it becomes physically painful, and sometimes I am so deeply glad I stepped away.
That duality of feeling is expressed very well in the new film “Disobedience.” Watching it, I felt alternating waves of nostalgia and anger, a bittersweet movie-going experience that reflects my bittersweet relationship to traditional observant Judaism.
Based on Naomi Alderman’s 2006 novel of the same name, “Disobedience” tells the story of Ronit (Rachel Weisz, also a producer on the film), the off-the-derech disowned daughter of the beloved Rav of an insular Orthodox community in London, and her two childhood best friends, Dovid, or Dov (Alessandro Nivola), and Esti (Rachel McAdams). When the Rav dies suddenly, Ronit leaves her life as a successful photographer in New York and returns to the close-knit community of her childhood. There she discovers that Dov is expected to become the successor to her father’s dynasty, and he and Esti have married. This relationship is a bit of a shock to Ronit—after all, she was disowned by the community in the first place because she had a teenage romance with Esti, and the Rav discovered them in bed.
Ronit’s return visit is profoundly impactful for both Esti and Dov. McAdams is sympathetic as a complex frum woman who fully knows she is only attracted to women, but also believes loving her community requires her to submerge that aspect of her true self in her marriage to Dov. Ronit’s character is portrayed as a fairly straightforward and uncomplicated rebel against “frumminess” (her words), viewing the whole community as “medieval.” She serves more as a catalyst than anything else. In only one instance does she take an action in accordance with Jewish tradition—ripping her shirt with her teeth upon learning of her father’s death. I particularly enjoyed a scene when an angry Ronit, disrespected by her uncle, takes some petty revenge by absconding with a hugely expensive, snazzy sheitel from his wig shop.
Esti, on the other hand, is a woman of faith and beloved teacher at a girls’ religious school. I appreciated that when we see her teaching she isn’t lecturing the girls about popping out babies or being good wives or braiding challah or any other cliché thing the world believes Orthodox women only think about—instead, she’s teaching them “Othello.” Esti’s existential crisis is multi-dimensional: Her entire life is tied to the community, socially, economically and spiritually. Her internal struggle between hanging on to her life versus publicly acknowledging her sexuality and facing absolute censure by the community is the heart of the film.
While the renewed relationship between Esti and Ronit is the main story, I cannot say enough good things about note-perfect (and Boston-born!) Nivola. His mannerisms are spot on—his tefillin are wrapped perfectly, his pronunciation is phenomenal, and when he says modeh ani I believed 100 percent that he has said these words every morning for his entire life. Beyond this realism, his complex and heartbreaking performance makes the audience truly feel for Dov. We witness his horror at the change his friend Ronit’s return has created in his marriage, and his dawning realization that while Esti cannot become her real self while married to him, he cannot attain his dreams without her by his side. Nivola is a revelation in this film, and I can’t wait to see him in the Mossad thriller “The Red Sea Diving Resort” later this year.
I remember distinctly the first time I saw the ridiculous 1992 film “A Stranger Among Us,” wherein cop Melanie Griffith has to go undercover in a Chassidic community. Mainly, I recall how ludicrous it seemed to me to have a scene where a Chassidic rabbi defines “Hashem” to a Chassidic child—for the benefit of the audience. “Disobedience” doesn’t repeat that mistake. The film never defines Hebrew or Yiddish terminology—we as viewers can figure it out with context. Not every phrase, hand gesture or type of religious head covering needs to be diagrammed. By avoiding this exposition trap, the film gives us an immersive experience in a unique community of flawed humans, an experience we have to process and understand on our own.
Speaking of the word Hashem, I was struck by how respectful the film was in this regard—Hashem is used consistently and correctly as a substitute word for the name of God during prayers throughout the film, a nod to the fact that this is, indeed, just a movie.
Director Sebastián Lelio and producer Weisz get mad props from me for recruiting a panel of experts, including rabbis, to give authenticity to “Disobedience.” It shows. My one quibble is that I would have loved to have seen the film explore more of why Esti is so attached to her tradition and faith. Esti was born into the community, but as a teen she chose to stay in the community after her relationship with Ronit was exposed, while Ronit chose to peace out for New York. Esti’s conflicting identities are the crux of the whole film, and deserve to be explored in more depth.