The saying “you can never go home again” means something different for queer folks. At best, our formative communities and family units still carry the feeling of before and after we became someone else. For those of harsher reality, a return brings it’s own consequences, a reckoning of lingering past, anxious present, and uncertain future. If this person is permitted to return at all.
In Disobedience, the latter is closer to the truth for Ronit, a photographer and former member of an enclosed conservative Jewish community, played with tense reserve by Rachel Weisz. Her return is prompted by the funeral of her strict father to which she was estranged, but the real coming home is to her former trio unit with the doting Dovid (Alessandro Nivola) and Esti (Rachel McAdams). Dovid has risen in the ranks of the Orthodoxy as a rabbi and Esti is now his wife, creating odd maneuverability around what their group has been and how it has changed.
But the meaningful glances between Ronit and Esti tell us all we need to know about this repressed shared past. And yet the palpability of the unspoken brews questions upon questions for us until they can now more stifle themselves behind their darting eyes and hesitant sentences.
As much a character study on the lingering effects of repressed sexuality as it is on religious conviction, director Sebastián Lelio allows the film to slowly subvert both prejudice and assumption. It’s refreshing to see a film with a spectrum of religious belief discussed, and quietly revolutionary to also have unassuming queerness intersecting as well. Rather than imposing perspective, the film is curious about its women and also crucially Nivola’s compassionate Dovid, making for more complex ideological ground than the obvious conundrums of straight versions of gay narratives. The consequences of this reconnection are less bombastically realized as the film reaches more for something deeper in the soul, thawing itself into richly earned warmth.
This makes Disobedience a work of rigorous patience, and its delayed catharsis pays off with unexpected complications and uneasy answers. Much has been made of its sex scene, a pivot point at once true to the risk of their position in their religious practice but also presented with a matter-of-factness that belies its normalcy. It’s breathtaking in its alternating chasteness and frank kinkiness. But the powerful release of that scene (not to mention how it also instigates and demands a compromising fallout) is thanks to the film’s meticulous building of personal stakes and the slow burn of McAdams’s performance.
The pass off of the narrative from Weisz to McAdams happens seamlessly, as it becomes evident that the reckoning of Ronit’s return falls squarely on Esti’s soft-spoken shoulders. McAdams underrated expressive minutiae is matched to Esti’s arc and then some: her Esti is magnetic in her mounting self-awareness, with McAdams gifts of subtlety projecting layers upon layers of her interior struggle. She is at once awakened and afraid, timid but sturdy, assured and thrown; it’s a barn burner of a career high.
Opposite her are Weisz and Nivola exploring their characters with equally fascinating dualities. Weisz is in a constant push and pull, reaching into the deep sadness of the bittersweet comfort of home and her scarcely contained rage. Nivola’s Dovid operates from compassion, and the cultural demand that he offer less than that brings its own tragic burden, taking root in the sadness behind Nivola’s glance. The triangle of sorts becomes a very moving presentation of long-devoted friendship built to withstand attacks from the outside.
As with his previous films of women coping with turbulence within, Lelio’s hand is unimposing with Disobedience’s narrative turns, instead curious about the full emotional landscape within his characters. While its rhythms are occasionally fitful and it takes a good deal of first act priming to lift off, the director crafts yet another absorbing portrait of people forced to the fringes and triumphing on their own terms.