The 2017 film Disobedience—Chilean director Sebastian Lelio’s English-language debut—opens at a London synagogue, where Rav Krushka (Anton Lesser) is discussing choice. He states that men are the only creatures God made with the freedom to disobey. Mankind alone is burdened with possibility. He stresses that choice should not be taken lightly, stating “Between the clarity of the angels, and the desire of the beasts, HaShem gave us choice.” And then, in the middle of speaking, he drops dead.
The scene moves to a New York City studio where another elderly man, similar in looks to the rav but covered in tattoos from the neck down, poses for a photograph. The contrast is striking, and the message clear: This man’s tattoos are his choice, and under the lights, in front of a photographer, they’re on display to the world. The visual contrast is deliberate, and the parallel scenes set both the tone of Disobedience and signpost its central moral question: What is our responsibility when given the possibility of choice?
The photographer in the second scene is Ronit (Rachel Weisz), who is the daughter of the suddenly deceased rav and who hears of his death from her closest childhood friend, Esti (Rachel McAdams). Years ago, Ronit left their Hasidic community after she and Esti were caught kissing; Esti chose to stay, became a teacher at the local school, and married their childhood friend Dovid (Alessandro Nivola).
Their reignition of contact—and the repercussions that follow—are the film’s narrative engine, and the effects of each woman’s choice are reflected in their appearances and body language. Ronit glides in out of scenes with self-assurance, easy humor, and a sophisticated black wardrobe. She is often smoking (a marker of her chic New York aesthetic), she stands tall, and she radiates confidence. Even her long, wavy hair seems almost majestic.
In contrast, Esti is shorter, and her frequent hunching makes her seem even smaller—it’s as if she’s determined to take up the least amount of space possible in every room. The bland, motherly wig she wears, per Orthodox tradition, covers up a shorter and more flattering haircut. Her every movement, deliberate yet slight, is meticulously performed femininity. Her voice is soft, and with every small utterance it’s clear that she’s holding back; her true feelings and emotions show themselves in short bursts.
One such burst occurs in a scene at a Shabbat dinner when Rebbetzin Goldfarb (Liza Sadovy) scolds Ronit for using the professional surname “Curtis” rather than “Krushka.” Esti quickly retorts in defense of her friend, pointing out that “[W]omen change their names every day. They take their husband’s names and their history is gone.” Rabbi Goldfarb (Nicholas Woodeson) swiftly denies this, but refuses to elaborate further. Ronit, egged on by the small rebellion of her friend, reveals to the table that she doesn’t want children and isn’t interested in marriage. The majority of the table—including her uncle Moshe (Allan Corduner), his wife Fruma (Bernice Stegers), and Dovid—visibly disapprove.
The way the two women provoke the Shabbat table as a form of flirting makes clear that Ronit has always brought out Esti’s rebellious side.
This is one of my favorite scenes in the film, and not just because it lays bare the intention of Disobedience’s narrative—to critique the patriarchal structures of this religious community by highlighting how they demand that women stifle their own needs and desires in service of a so-called higher purpose. That is the text of the scene, yes. But the subtext is even richer because it gives viewers a glimpse of Esti and Ronit’s romantic history: The way the two women provoke the Shabbat table as a form of flirting makes clear that Ronit has always brought out Esti’s rebellious side. Together, they were troublemakers.
But the scene also prompts a question: Why didn’t Esti leave? When Ronit later asks just this, Esti’s explanation is that she was “ill” and the rav thought marriage would “cure” her. Though she doesn’t enjoy marriage, and feels with Dovid nothing of the passion she shares with Ronit, she is committed to her purpose as a teacher to the girls in the community. Ronit scoffs at this, seeing Esti’s decision as a cowardly refusal to tend to her own needs. It’s hard not to see her point: Esti was a young queer woman in a community with no resources to support her and a religion that told her that her urges were wrong. And instead of getting her the help she needed, the adults in her life had her married off.
Stories in which a prodigal child—or, at least, a female one—returns to her hometown as an adult tend to lean on the character’s need to be re-rooted. She’s experienced divorce, humiliation, or a professional disaster; she lacks confidence; she’s floundering. The role of her hometown is to humble her and to help her find herself by seeing her mistakes and foibles through their eyes. But that’s not Ronit’s role; in Disobedience, it’s Esti who has the journey of self-discovery. Just as Dovid married Esti to save her, Esti settled for Dovid because she believed it was the practical, righteous thing to do; her sexuality and her passion for Ronit weren’t enough to drive her away from a community she’s devoted to. For Esti, Ronit’s fidelity to no moral code except her own embodies a rejection of everything she herself knows.
Which brings us back to the question of choice. Once faced with her passion for Ronit, Esti has a decision to make: She can fight for her freedom or remain with Dovid, and neither is necessarily the “right” choice. Disobedience is the kind of woman-at-a-crossroads film I love: I am enthralled by women discovering their true selves, seeking pleasure and challenging the way they are perceived. I don’t need the women in these narratives to be archetypal “strong female characters” or feminist heroines, but simply interesting, complex, sensual and even vulnerable. Those qualities are what drew me to Disobedience, as well as to Beyoncé’s Lemonade, Michael Pierce’s Beast, and the films of Jennifer Jason Leigh. As Bitch Media’s 2018 Pop-Culture Criticism fellow, I want to dive into narratives of complex women onscreen and interrogate the way marginalized women are characterized. I hope you’ll follow along.