Disobedience: Rachels Weisz and McAdams are forbidden lovers in thoughtful film about religion and freedom

By Jim Slotek

B-plus

Chilean director Sebastián Lelio had two movies at the Toronto International Film Festival last year. One of them, the trans drama A Fantastic Woman, would win a Best Foreign Language Oscar. The other, Disobedience, opens quietly this week.

Yet, the latter, Lelio’s English-language debut is a quieter, sweeter and more nuanced film, a forbidden-love story set in London’s Orthodox Jewish community.

Marked from the opening scene by a sense of sadness and loss, Disobedience contrasts sharply with A Fantastic Woman for its reluctance to offer up heroes to cheer for and villains to hate. There are only decisions, repercussions, commitment to tradition that overshadows compassion, and the melancholy understanding that things carved in stone aren’t easily erased.

 Ronit's return isn't good news for the marriage between Esti and aspiring rabbi Dovid

Ronit's return isn't good news for the marriage between Esti and aspiring rabbi Dovid

We meet Ronit (Rachel Weisz), a glamourous New York photographer who returns to London after the death of her estranged rabbi father. It quickly becomes clear her presence is welcomed by no one, although charitably received by her two former best friends Esti (Rachel McAdams) and Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), the heir apparent to Ronit’s father’s rabbinical calling.

Esti and Dovid are married. But it soon becomes clear Ronit and Esti share a past relationship. The waves their love affair once threw in a community based on responsibility and duty still resonate, and Ronit’s return and the inevitable rekindling of that relationship poses a direct threat to a religious leader’s future and a community’s confidence in him.

Taken from a novel by Naomi Alderman, Disobedience offers up its big themes – duty to tradition versus duty to self (and the loss of friends and bonds that comes with the latter) – from within the prism of Ronit and Esti’s experience. This is very much a woman’s movie from a director who’s proven his skill at telling women’s stories. Weisz’s Ronit has a hard understanding of what starting up again with Esti means. Esti has a freer spirit hiding under all that hidebound tradition. Their scenes together are heartbreaking convergences of opposites.

At the same time, Nivola’s performance as Dovid offers a terrific grace note. He’s a man who faces the loss of his life’s calling, yet is not drawn to anger. His sad recognition of what it all means completes a kind of very human circle, about the push-and-pull of tradition, and the cost of freedom from it.

Disobedience. Directed by Sebastián Lelio. Starring Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams and Alessandro Nivola. Opens Friday, May 18 in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal.