So the story goes, actress Rachel Weisz saw Sebastián Lelio’s film Gloria and immediately requested he direct Disobedience, an adaptation of Naomi Alderman’s novel, which Weisz had optioned. It was a remarkably astute choice; the Chilean director has since gone on to make A Fantastic Woman, the searing transgender story which won Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars this year.
Indeed, anyone capable of so authentically telling that tale clearly has the right sensibility and sensitivity for Disobedience, a story set amongst the close-knit British Orthodox Jewish community in north London. Alderman based the story largely on her own experiences, which accounts for the impressive detail and texture here as Weisz’s Ronit returns to the world she left behind.
After running away and reinventing herself as a photographer in New York, Ronit comes back to chilly Hendon when she discovers her father has died. Her unexpected arrival causes immediate discomfort for childhood friend Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), a protégé of her late father, who was a respected rabbi in the community.
As the story unfolds, we discover that Ronit was ostracised from these Orthodox folk after a teenage affair with another woman – Esti (Rachel McAdams), who has since married Dovid. Needless to say, Ronit’s arrival stirs up old feelings, causing consternation amongst those who knew and respected her father.
Lelio, who worked with playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz on adapting Alderman’s book, once again dives into a world alien to him and delivers a detailed account of this closed-off, ultra-religious community. Amongst the stand-out performers, Nivola is remarkable as Dovid, truly conveying what it’s like to devote oneself to beliefs above all else.
In comparison to the recent Apostasy, which delved into the equally strict Jehovah’s Witness community, Disobedience is less stark in its approach. It turns more towards a love story in the second half as it questions just how it’s possible to damp down feelings when faced with loyalty to one’s faith. Whether LGBT+ viewers will find the lesbian relationship convincing remains to be seen, but Disobedience is a rarity: a film that treats belief and sexuality with equal respect.
Disobedience opens on 30 November. For more details, visit Curzon Artificial Eye.
1. All images courtesy of Curzon Artificial Eye.