Orthodox Lovers Shake Up ‘Disobedience’

April 25, 2018
Rachel Weisz (from left), Rachel McAdams and Alessandro Nivola in “Disobedience.”

Steamy lesbian sex. That explains part of the buzz behind the new film “Disobedience,” in which Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams play lovers reunited after many years.

Such a display has generated interest in a film before, but it might be the first time it has been depicted within the Orthodox Jewish community. It’s almost certainly the first time the women getting it on are named “Ronit” and “Esti,” the latter of whom wears a sheitel — a wig worn by Orthodox wives.

Based on the 2006 novel by Naomi Alderman, “Disobedience” follows Ronit Krushka (Weisz), who returns to the community that she left in order to bury her estranged father, a revered rabbi. Although she is regarded by many as unwelcome, she is warmly received by childhood friends Dovid, her father’s protege, and his wife, Esti (McAdams), with whom she once had a romantic relationship. The discovery of their forbidden tryst savaged Ronit’s relationship with her father and prompted her exit from Orthodox life. So when the women reunite after many years, a long-buried conflict is renewed.

The film is directed by Chilean-born Sebastián Lelio, of 2017’s “A Fantastic Woman,” which won this year’s foreign-language film Oscar. That film, about a young transgender woman ostracized and abused after the death of her partner, hints at the director’s preference for characters that exist outside social norms.

“I love the idea of people who are willing to pay the price to be who they really are, [especially] against a backdrop that can have an oppressive aspect,” Lelio, 44, said during a recent phone interview.

“One of the main ideas of the film is that there’s nothing more spiritual than the power to disobey.” — Sebastián Lelio

Hot lesbian sex aside, “Disobedience” is as much about the tensions implicit in religious life — between belonging and freedom, desire and fidelity, tradition and modernity — as it is a love story. The subtext of the film explores the standards required for membership in the group and the costs of leaving.

Since Lelio is not Jewish (“Not that I’m aware of,” he joked), he said that growing up in a Catholic country taught him about the powerful cultural allure of religion.

“Even though I’m so far away from the [Orthodox Jewish] reality, I do understand the dynamics of a culture where the weight of religion can be strong and influential, and how that can create tension between what the community needs and the personal quest for individual freedom,” Lelio said.

To prepare for the film, Lelio immersed himself in the mores and values governing Orthodox Jewish religious life. He sought to understand what his characters risked by transgressing those rules in a gay relationship. Weisz, the Jewish daughter of survivors and a producer on the film, said in production notes that Lelio approached Orthodox Judaism as “a cultural anthropologist.”

“I feel very lucky to have had the opportunity to be in such a private world,” Lelio said of the time he spent with the North London Orthodox community, in which the film is set. In addition to working with nearly a dozen consultants, Lelio attended worship services and Jewish ceremonies.

“I became really obsessed with the culture in the process,” he said. “I was really moved by the community, the music, the rituals. When they open the ark, when we see the Torah, I was like, ‘This is so powerful!’ And the narrative [the Torah tells] has been refined for centuries. That is so beautiful and effective, and I was attracted to it because I am a narrative person myself.”

McAdams, who plays Esti and is not Jewish, has said she prepared for the role by attending Shabbat dinners with Orthodox Jews in Los Angeles.

Likewise, Alessandro Nivola, who plays Dovid, the heir-apparent rabbi, has said that the research he undertook to play this role was the most interesting and rewarding of his career, and that the friendships he formed over Shabbat dinners produced “friends for life.”

And yet, no matter how much he and his actors prepared, Lelio said the Orthodox community remained enigmatic to them.

“There’s no way to really know it,” Lelio said. “It’s very secretive in a way, and I guess that’s what was really appealing for me — the possibility of creating these portraits that were taking place in an unknown world with such a precise system of beliefs, rules, rituals, aesthetics, traditions and music. [Judaism] is such an old culture that has survived so many challenges and spread all over the world, and yet has preserved its identity even though during centuries [Jews] were spread apart. That was something so interesting to explore. I wanted to know: What was it that [gave Jews] the strength to keep together, to prevail and survive?”

Despite his admiration, Lelio’s film also shows the darker side of a community set in its ways. It suggests that sometimes the same forces that bind can also destroy. None of Lelio’s protagonists emerge from their experience without wounds. The problem isn’t religion, he said, the film’s conflict stems from the messiness of the human heart.

“What I tried to do is not make the community the antagonistic force, but to make [each character] an antagonist,” Lelio said. “They are their own main obstacles.”

Though Ronit and Esti set the conflict in motion, ultimately Dovid — the devout student and rabbi — faces the direst consequences. The fulfillment of his spiritual role ends up demanding a disobedience all his own.

“Everything that he stands for and everything he has prepared for is jeopardized,” Lelio said. “He’s really facing a huge dilemma. And it’s quite moving to see him struggle with having the bravery to be generous.”

Sometimes, Lelio said, the most godly act requires the moral courage to dissent.

“One of the main ideas of the film is that there’s nothing more spiritual than the power to disobey. There is something pure in that. Sometimes we have to disobey in order to transcend, in order to survive,” he said. “And there is violence, and there is beauty in that. And I think the film tries to embrace both aspects — the light and shadows of the price they have to pay.”

The act of disobedience, Lelio added, “suggests that a new order is possible, a new balance is possible. Everything is evolving. And even though the wisdom of tradition is capable of holding great truth, it also has to be challenged. Because even galaxies are evolving, the whole universe is evolving, everything is in flux.

“And the beautiful love story that takes place in this kind of an environment [suggests] that there is always room for expansion and change.”

“Disobedience” opens in theaters on April 27.

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