There's a moment in every Sebastian Lelio film that cuts to the core of the writer-director's protagonists; that lets audiences peer into their hearts and souls. As seen in Gloria and A Fantastic Woman, it's usually a contemplative pause amidst a hectic frenzy — one heightened not only by the filmmaker's empathetic gaze, but by the stellar talent he's always pointing his lens towards. In Disobedience, this moment comes early. Photographer Ronit Krushka (Rachel Weisz) segues from busy days taking pictures to frantic nights finding comfort in bars, clearly masking her true feelings behind a carefully controlled facade. And so she sits for mere seconds, catching her breath, her eyes darting around as she looks towards the camera, and her hands ripping at her shirt with frustration and yearning.
If Ronit is inwardly restless just going about her regular New York routine, then she's almost jumping out of her skin when she's called back to North London upon the death of her rabbi father. The Orthodox Jewish community she once belonged to is barely cordial, with the traditional greeting "may you have a long life" cutting like a weapon. But childhood friends Dovid (Alessandro Nivola) and Esti (Rachel McAdams), now married and still devout, welcome Ronit into their home, black sheep though she may be. Grief about her dad and guilt over their estrangement aren't the primary source of Ronit's distress, however. Nor is the rebellious, defiant reputation she's instantly given upon her homecoming. Rather, it's the torrid relationship that Ronit shared with Esti when they were teenagers — and the rekindled feelings sparked by her return.
Adapted by Lelio and co-writer Rebecca Lenkiewicz (Ida) from Naomi Alderman's 2006 novel of the same name, Disobedience isn't a film about romance with religious tension layered on top, or one about religion with romance thrown in. Matters of affection and matters of theology are both involved, but characterising this complex, nuanced and soulful movie as one or the other does it a disservice. This is a story that recognises the many competing factors that shape a person's identity and choices, as well as the ongoing tussle between being true to oneself and meeting the expectations of others. Accordingly, desire, duty and faith intertwine in a picture that charts the influence each has had upon each member of its central love triangle.
And make no mistake: while the film follows its two female protagonists as they try to follow their hearts amidst oppressivecircumstances, Disobedience is a love triangle as much as it's a lesbian love story. The sensitivity Lelio brings to the forbidden romance is also applied to Dovid, a rabbi-in-training who embodies the fundamentalist principles blocking Ronit and Esti's bliss, yet proves just as torn about what's right. A lesser film would paint him as the villain, but that's the kind of easy depiction Disobedience shies away from at every turn. Although the movie delves into a cloistered world that's set in its ways and unwilling to change, nothing about its characters, their emotions or their struggles is anywhere near as straightforward or clear cut. There's a reason that Lelio favours shades of grey, visually, after all.
Weisz, McAdams and Nivola are similarly multifaceted — so much so that, in the ultimate compliment to each actor, their respective characters feel as though they could walk right off the screen. The blend of steeliness and vulnerability Weisz brings to the bulk of her work courses through Ronit's veins, with the star also one of the movie's producers. Nivola plays Dovid as decent but conflicted, weathering every narrative beat with quiet poignancy. But it's McAdams who is in rarely-seen form. Earlier this year, she stole the show while showcasing her comedic chops in the vastly dissimilar Game Night. Now, she dons a kosher wig to lay bare the devastating pain of a woman torn between her head and her heart.