Disobedience follows Ronit Krushka (Rachel Weiss) from New York back to her home town in England after learning that her father, a renowned and beloved rabbi in an orthodox Jewish community, has died. She has not been present in the community for an indeterminate amount of time, and it’s unclear whether she left of her own volition or if she was kicked out. Her presence is accepted, but not welcomed, and soon we learn that she was once romantically involved with Esti Kuperman (Rachel McAdams). Esti still lives and works within the religious community, and has since married their mutual childhood friend, Dovid (Alessandro Nivola). Ronit and Esti rekindle their love in short order. They want to be together, but Esti is reluctant to take the leap.
While the elevator pitch and posters of the face-to-face pair of Rachels might make you believe their film is this year’s Call Me by Your Name or Carol, Disobedience falls far short. The former two films were both empathic portrayals of gay couples navigating a world that was unaccepting of their love. They captured a feeling of remote danger; their respective leads knew what was expected of them, and knew the consequences if they deviated those expectations. A deep, stirring force within them made them choose love over propriety.
Making a conscious choice is something Disobedience wants you to believe its characters have the ability to do. In fact, it bookends itself with monologues on the biblical idea that humans were given free will, a trait is both a blessing and a curse. But time and again it’s unclear whether the characters in Disobedience are making a choice, or merely succumbing to the pressure of others.
Ronit and Esti’s given action is to rise above a suppressive community and religion in order to live their most authentic lives. For as monumental a task as this should be, Disobedience is frustratingly undeserving of its title. The word itself connotes that one is willful or defiant; that one is disobedient when they’re acting under conscious rebellion of a status quo. However, any strength that these characters possess either doesn’t exist, or is too implicit to be felt. Of course, we get the idea that it’s difficult to leave one’s orthodox community, but Disobedience doesn’t try very hard to present us with what consequences look like. Ronit appears to have a happy and fulfilling life after leaving her community and her father. We feel some moments of her isolation, others her pride. But for a film that wants free will to hold a mirror up to orthodoxy, Disobedience never gets close to exploring how hard won freedom is. It requests us to understand the toll that their communal pressures take, while presenting characters whose decisions seem rather easy.
Guilt seems to be the only force keeping Esti where she is. There’s no fire and brimstone in Judaism like in the Chrsitian faiths, but the consequences of being gay in this world are hardly examined. The film makes it seem like the off-handed remarks and furrowed brows of their elders at Shabbos is the worst that could happen if Ronit and Esti were found out. There is a moment when the security of Esti’s job comes into question, which could create some stakes, but she never fully commits to preserving the things that are keeping her in that community. Instead, she goes off to a hotel with Ronit directly after leaving her boss’s office.
There’s a kind of certainty that Ronit and Esti have in each other that lessens the drama. It’s unclear how long Ronit’s been away, but the two women disclose to each other that they haven’t really been with any other women. Their love for each other is to be taken as a given. Their childhood affairs weren’t a simply dalliance, but the stuff of soulmates. The definitiveness of their love doesn’t leave room for Esti to have much in the way of a struggle of faith. She’s accepted the life she’s leading, but she’s passionate for Ronit, and yet she’s reluctant to fully commit to either.
Disobedience tries to present two irreconcilable sides to life: the unrestrained and the structured. Ronit’s hair is free and flowing, while Esti’s is kept under a wig. Ronit and Esti’s sex is free and impulsive, even a little nasty, contrasted with the under-the-covers scheduled missionary that Esti has with Dovid earlier in the film. As Ronit takes Esti’s picture, you understand the sensation of someone seeing you the way you want to be seen, versus how you think you should appear. There are times when you feel the sensation of feeling suffocated where others feel at home. But these moments are too fleeting to have much impact on a film that seems to have trouble determining who to empathize most with: its world or its characters.
Disobedience implores its characters to choose, but it never chooses for itself, so any conflict ultimately rings hollow. Perhaps what it’s missing is a grand, impassioned speech. Something that would lead us to believe that these characters have any faith in their decision-making. But there’s no scene that acts as a middle finger against an institution that shames and shuns people; no act of defiance at all. Perhaps most annoying is for all its outer trappings of feminism, Disobedience leans too heavy on orthodox minutia to become anything resembling feminist.
It’s certainly not the responsibility for films featuring marginalized characters to speak directly to our fraught times, but films should have a responsibility to their characters to represent their struggles in a way that does those struggles justice. Intellectually we understand the difficulty of breaking from deeply ingrained expectations, but Disobedience never explores how difficult that can be. Instead, characters are too dutiful to tradition to make their choices feel revolutionary. They’re not disobedient. They’re submissive.