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‘Disobedience’ dares to challenge taboos

“Disobedience” (2018). Cast: Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams, Alessandro Nivola, Anton Lesser, Bernice Stegers, Allan Corduner, Nicholas Woodeson, Liza Sadovy. Director: Sebastián Lelio. Screenplay: Sebastián Lelio and Rebecca Lenkiewicz. Book: Naomi Alderman, Disobedience. Web site. Trailer.

Getting what we want from life, especially in an area as critical as romance, may push us to our limits. We may find ourselves saddled with constraints that push back against us, thwarting our efforts and keeping us from fulfilling our objectives. But these conditions are often wholly arbitrary, capable of being overcome with the right degrees of determination and self-reliance, themes explored in the new romantic drama, “Disobedience.”

When a much-beloved but aging and frail rav (Anton Lesser) passes on, the faithful of his orthodox London synagogue are devastated. The usual and customary ceremonies acknowledging his death, celebrating his life and preparing for his successor are carried out with the expected speed, dignity and efficiency. Everything goes as it’s supposed to. But, in the midst of all this, an unexpected wrinkle pops up: The rabbi’s only child, his daughter Ronit (Rachel Weisz), returns to London from New York, where she’s spent years working as a professional photographer.

Three old friends, Ronit (Rachel Weisz, left), Esti (Rachel McAdams, center) and Dovid (Alessandro Nivola, right), honor the passing of their orthodox synagogue’s beloved rav in the new romantic drama, “Disobedience.” Photo by Agatha A. Nitecki, courtesy of Bleecker Street Media.

Ronit’s return comes as a surprise, because she left suddenly, without notice, and has not kept in touch with anyone since her unexpected departure. In fact, most of her father’s friends and associates suspected, given how she left and has remained incommunicado, that they would never hear from her again. But, being a dutiful daughter, she believes that coming home to honor her father is the right thing to do.

On some level, Ronit is uncomfortable about her return, not sure how she will be received. But she soon finds a warmer-than-expected reception, especially from the two friends with whom she was closest while growing up, Dovid (Alessandro Nivola) and Esti (Rachel McAdams). Dovid, who appears to be the rav’s most likely successor, is devout in all he does, and Esti, a school teacher, loves her work. They’ve also married since Ronit’s departure, news that takes the prodigal daughter by surprise – especially since one of them also played a part in her leaving.

So why did Ronit head to New York? As it turns out, she and Esti were strongly attracted to one another, despite orthodox taboos against a romance such as theirs. Their forbidden relationship, once exposed, caused great distress for her father and led to quite an uproar in the congregation. Ronit saw no option but to move away, though she never forgot the love she left behind – which is why the revelation of Esti’s marriage to Dovid comes as quite a shock. But, before long, Ronit learns that the embers of their romance have not cooled. In fact, Ronit’s return marks the rekindling of an old flame, one whose heat won’t be denied this time.

A rabbi’s daughter, Ronit Krushka (Rachel Weisz, right), honors her deceased father at his gravesite in director Sebastián Lelio’s latest offering, “Disobedience.” Photo courtesy of Bleecker Street Media.

As events play out, circumstances grow progressively more complicated. Ronit and Esti become closer, an intimacy that increasingly drives a wedge between Dovid and his wife. The marriage becomes strained, and Dovid wonders whether he’ll be allowed to ascend as the rav’s successor. At the same time, though, he begins to question his faith and whether the constraints of its customs and traditions are something he can live with, especially once he sees the genuine affection that’s blossoming between his two longtime friends. Is the “disobedience” of Ronit and Esti really as “bad” as it’s alleged to be? The circumstances raise some hard questions for all concerned, particularly whether they’ll be able to continue leading the lives they always have or if they’ll be forced into adopting new ways of living more in line with their true selves.

Love, as most of us are aware, tends to know no bounds, regardless of the restrictions we may try to place upon it. That’s true even in the most conservative of communities. Such circumstances are chiefly the product of the beliefs that underlie them, the building blocks of the conscious creation process, the means by which we manifest the reality we experience.

Despite the prevailing sanctions against relationships like this, Ronit and Esti – on some level – believe that forging a bond such as theirs is entirely possible. The only thing that has been holding them back is the beliefs of their community, something that they’re free to choose to ignore if they so decide. Granted, such a radically decisive act may not be easy, especially since it’s likely to lead to ostracism from their tribe, but it’s fundamentally not impossible. Because they possess the powers of choice and free will and because conscious creation makes an infinite range of possibilities attainable at any given moment, they have the wherewithal to make their dream come true – if they choose to do so.

Dovid Kuperman (Alessandro Nivola), the apparent successor to a deceased rav, awaits his destiny in the new romantic drama, “Disobedience.” Photo courtesy of Bleecker Street Media.

Taking such a bold step can truly be intimidating. Deciding to proceed in this fashion requires overcoming one’s personal fears, having the courage to pursue one’s true self, despite the potential obstacles. Such conditions are certainly called for where Ronit and Esti are concerned, but the question becomes, do they possess these qualities to realize their aspirations?

While same-sex relationships have generally become more accepted in recent years, there are still segments of society where they’re frowned upon and where taking steps to initiate them represents an act of heroic defiance. Thankfully, there are films that aptly illustrate the possibilities in this regard. In addition to “Disobedience,” other offerings, such as the recently released “God’s Own Country” (2017), the Academy Award-winning “Moonlight” (2016) and the charming romantic comedy “Touch of Pink” (2004), examine what it’s like for those living under restricted social conditions to have the faith, confidence and courage to boldly pursue alternate romantic arrangements, regardless of what others might think. The practice of conscious creation and the thoughts, beliefs and intents that make it work give them the means – and the permission – to proceed to fulfill their hearts’ desire.

The taboo relationship between Ronit (Rachel Weisz, left), a deceased rabbi’s daughter, and Esti (Rachel McAdams, right), wife of a would-be rav, drives the tension of the story in the new romantic drama, “Disobedience.” Photo courtesy of Bleecker Street Media.

However, while the message of this alternative love story is indeed a valid one, the execution is a bit off at times. Despite fine performances, the film sometimes gets tripped up on its pacing and direction, meandering a little too much for its own good. Although nuance is fine, occasionally it can be overdone, and, in the case of “Disobedience,” a less cluttered, more succinct approach would have made this offering work better. Overall it’s not bad; it’s just not outstanding.

Finding the love of one’s life might not always be easy, but the satisfaction it yields when we truly find it is often beyond measure. If we hope to attain it, though, we must have the courage and forthrightness to push aside whatever stands in our way. To do less is to deny ourselves one of the greatest gifts life has to offer, and I can think of few things that are more disobedient than that.

Copyright © 2018, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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