Disobedience: A Movie Review

We saw the film Saturday evening. I wrote this review Sunday. I am only sending it out this morning because I had to finish off the latter half of my Friday Torah commentary that was too long. By sheer chance, there is a tenuous link between the film and the commentary. Normally I write reviews because I love a film or because, contrary to popular critical opinion, I dislike it. That means that the vast majority of films I watch are not reviewed by me. This movie review falls in neither of my major two categories.

Disobedience is a 2018 film starring Rachel Weisz (Ronit Krushka), Rachel McAdams (Esti) and Alessandro Nivola (Dovid) directed by Sebastiăn Lelio, the Chilean director of the Academy Award-winning Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, A Fantastic Woman. On “Rotten Tomatoes,” the film received a tomatometer median rating of 84% indicating the percentage of positive professional critic reviews, with an average of 72%, indicating that critics who did not like the movie really disliked it. The audience score was 77% with a much closer average rating. Supposedly not a great movie but an OK one.

The film is based on Naomi Alderman’s 2006 novel of the same name that won the Orange Prize for Fiction when it was published. It was adapted for the screen by the director and Rebecca Lenkiewicz, the playwright and author of Her Naked Skin (2008), a play about two rebellious suffragettes in pre-WWI Britain. Given these elements, one would expect the film to be at least decent and watchable, especially since Alderman came from the ultra-orthodox Jewish community of Hendon in the northwest suburb of London.

Unfortunately, though watchable, ponderously so, the movie was not decent, not in the sense that it was about non-conformity to propriety and respectability. Nor because a lesbian scene took place in exquisite detail. The indecency arises because the film is neither kind nor informed by a generous spirit to enable one to get inside either the community itself or the members who either stayed or chose to leave. The film is not decent since it is not adequate or appropriate in advancing our understanding.

Though not an offensive portrayal at all of a very restrictive life style, part of the reason the film falls so short is its insensitivity. And that insensitivity seems to be a product of ignorance. At one point in the film, there is resistance to Ronit attending the hesped, a Jewish equivalent to a eulogy, honoring her father. It can be a separate event, but there is no explanation either of its nature or why this celebration of the Rav, normally held prior to burial, occurs much later, except for the convenience of the director since Ronit returned from New York too late to attend the funeral. And the director wants to juxtapose this free spirit without a wig who smokes and wears short leather skirts with the wigs and long skirts of the women of the community.

Though the ordinary life of the homes, the local shops and the school are portrayed reasonably honestly, unlike the novel, Judaism is not. The film offers a tension between rebellion versus religion when the religion is intimately about resistance to obedience to God’s will while, at the same time, trying to conform to it.  Rebellion is internal to the religion, not an external force.

Like A Fantastic Woman about illicit love involving a transgendered woman who cannot assume her justified place upon the death of her partner, this movie concentrates on a sympathetic view of the relationship between Ronit and Esti. That community is portrayed as intolerant, repressive and narrow-minded. Ronit, the only child of the Rav, the spiritual leader of the community, returns upon learning of the death of her father. She had left the community many years earlier to become a photographer of note in New York and to live a radically different lifestyle of cigarettes, casual sex, and a quirky aesthetic focus. One surprise of the film is the absolute mundane quality of the use of the camera and the choice of what to film, especially given the aesthetic choice Ronit made.

The problem is nuance. The problem is subtlety. The problem is simplification to the edge of boredom. There is virtually no challenge for Rachel Weisz to inspire her to perform at the top of her game. In My Cousin Rachel, Rachel Weisz played a woman who was enigmatic. Was she beautiful and innocent and decent or was she sly and conniving in the cleverest ways? There is no such suspense in Disobedience.  Even though Ronit is supposedly devastated on hearing of the death of her father, even though the traditions she inherited were written into her DNA so that she tears her clothes upon hearing of the death of her father, the rest of the movie brackets the depth of her conditioning to simply present her as a free spirited rebel, one who happens to still love her father even though he disowned her. We never learn why she loved her father so deeply. We never feel a tension between an identification with the community in which she was raised and the freedom from restrictions she currently enjoys in living away from that community.

In watching the film, you may ask whether Esti will leave her husband and her community and return to New York with Ronit, but it will be a perfunctory ask, for Esti lacks the psychological complexity to be torn by such a choice. Is she too burdened by convention? But Esti initiated the renewal of the affair; Esti is presented as having the more unbridled passion. Yet the option as presented is as simple and unreal as one between passion presented as animal instinct and submission to the restrictive rules of an insular community. Instead of ambiguity, the viewer is offered polarity in the guise of simplicity.

Further, the film is full of loose ends that seem to have nothing to do with deliberate direction and plotting. Why is Esti’s pregnancy mentioned but her previous inability to conceive ignored? What is the role of Ronit’s family’s candlesticks? I could not figure it out. And what about communication? Esti teaches Othello to her students, a tale about passion and betrayal, but the link is superficial and arbitrary rather than substantive. Yet communication, or its absence, seem central to the film since Esti cannot talk about her attraction to women to her husband, Dovid. Further, the problem between Ronit and her father was that they lost a common language as Ronit slipped into the role of capturing the moment, capturing a time rather than working to preserve moments of revelation for all eternity.

Sometimes incidents work in reverse. Tattooing on flesh in the opening of the film may be of voyeuristic interest to Ronit as an art photographer, but this is inverted when the imprint of tradition on her seems (most of the time) to have even less depth than the dyes inserted by a tattoo artist’s pen. The film may take place in dank and dreary London, but the interior of the synagogue is not the carved out innards of two semi-detached homes, but rather the classic beauty of a highly restored Orthodox synagogue.

It should be no surprise that each and everyone of the incidents pushing the plot forward are always coincidences. So are many of the background effects – the song “You Make Me Feel like a Natural Woman” playing as the deep attraction of Esti and Ronit comes to a climax, or Ronit turning on the radio in her visit to her old home with Esti and “Love Song” plays over the radio.

Serendipity is certainly possible, but then why not introduce the issue of chance and risk into the ethical dilemmas of choice that could provide some depth to this two-dimensional presentation. The members of the community whisper and glance sideways with critical stares. The conversations are awkward, made more awkward when Ronit challenges conventions. But some of those challenges are simply stupid. If she was raised in a ultra-orthodox community, why would she reach out to hug Dovid when she first sees him? It would have been bred into her DNA that this form of touching between a married man and a single woman was absolutely verboten and that her free spirit would have no thrust to cross such a barrier.

However, the film is not about aesthetics, but ethics. And very simplistic ethics at that. It opens with a scene on the bema of the gorgeous London synagogue where the Rav is giving a sermon which distinguishes between the angels, who have no choice but to follow God’s will, beasts who have no choice but to follow their instincts, and humans who have the freedom of choice, presumably whether to be beasts who follow their instincts or angels who follow the will of Hashem. Where does the choice Moses had to make fit into this simplistic schema? As the Rav’s sermon rises to a crescendo in articulating the fatal choice humans have, serendipitously he collapses and dies. But he is reborn in the sermon offered by the film in favour of freedom of expression without considering its own problematic status.

The parashat of this past week was about God introducing Himself to Moses and, in effect, seducing Moses into becoming the leader of the Israelites in the pursuit of their freedom. The story is full of ironies for the new name of God is identified as having a Midianite source. The sense of the rule of law and its delegation to judges rather than political leaders, so integral to Judaism, comes from the Midian priest, Jethro. The influence from the outside challenges the people and inspires them. Outside influences are not always or even mostly an external threat. A movie that fails to recognize this tension between the external and the internal, one even written into the DNA of God who finally exposes himself as an inner spirit as well as a powerful protective one via an outsider, is blind and does not even have the insight of a photograph. Missing this internal tension, especially within ultra-orthodoxy, was a lost opportunity and voyeurism’s gain.

This type of coincidental conjunction repeats itself throughout the film to the point of exasperation. After we are one-quarter into the film, we learn that Ronit, Esti and Dovid were best friends as teenagers. The film plays with the audience. Ronit is surprised that Dovid and Esti married. If one is on a conventional track, one presumes that this may be because Dovid and Ronit were once involved in a relationship and Esti was Ronit’s best friend. But the movie turns convention upside down and it is Esti and Ronit who were involved. Esti’s father, the Rav, had discovered them in bed together, precipitating Ronit’s flight from the insular ultra-orthodox community.

This plot inversion also occurs with respect to the camera eye. On the one hand, Ronit loses her detachment as a photographer as Dovid is cast in that role of a bystander looking on, but without the aesthetic distance to take in the picture in front of him. Dovid had previously been adopted as the Rav’s prize pupil, protégé and ostensible successor at the age of 13. On the verge of taking the place of the Rav, he comes to a climactic scene when he abandons that role and confesses that he does not have sufficient understanding. Did that mean that he could not boil the issue down to the simplifications of Rav at the beginning of the film where the incredulity of the film began?

The actors are wonderful even if their parts as written are not. Virtually everything else is wrong with the film. The houses in which the Jews live are neat, ordinary and monotonous and the angles and choices of vision in the synagogues and the homes are suitably, at least to the dominant theme, claustrophobic, but where was the visual inventiveness of A Fantastic Woman, an important signature of the director? The women wear wigs. And the focus is on eating and praying, and, in this film, on sex. For once the passions between Ronit and Esti are slowly reignited, visual and perpetual adolescent passion takes over. The Rav appears to have been correct. Instinct is powerful and unremitting, so the choice between surrendering to instinct and following God’s will becomes stark and tortuous. This is a cliché.

When we produced Israel Today, we broadcast a film made in the ultra-orthodox film school in Jerusalem, Ma’aleh, about a woman with children who lives in that community, but slowly begins to discover she is gay. In another film, the title of which I recall, A Little Bit Different, Chava, who called off her engagement a year before, is once again being introduced to a man to marry, but in this one, the tension between prejudice and openness is reversed. It is the one who is more free spirited who is revealed to be the one who is more prejudiced. That movie is more in the vein of Jane Austen’s classic, Pride and Prejudice.

These films, without any of the production values of Disobedience or its lofty level of acting, however, were much more authentic and far less contrived both in the presentation and the theme. The plots were also about tradition versus freedom of choice, but the ethical frame was not caricatured. In the first, the plot was about how the husband, following such a strict regimen, in spite of the dominant mores and the excruciating pain he felt as he gradually learned of his wife’s infidelity, learned to accept and adjust to her persona. In the second film, it is the woman who carries the prejudices, but they are ordinary ones rather than community or anti-community attitudes. In both cases, these were tales of tolerance within a very hermetic and narrow community.

These were amateur student films, but the passion was felt and not just presented before the camera like the weirdness of a tattoo. In Disobedience in the scene when lust and love between Ronit and Esti finally burst open in the inner sanctum of a hotel room to which they escape, the passion simply is not there even if all the varied lesbian moves are present in exquisite detail. The choreography may be exemplary, but the scene just does not make it. Further, and much more fundamentally, the moral choice is simplistic to the point of caricature of the ultra-orthodox Jewish community. In the ultra-orthodox amateur film there had been nuance and sensitivity instead of simplicity and raw passion presented as a detailed but unfeeling performance.

The story of a sensitive and loving man facing a crisis in his marriage and exhibiting that love in the form of empathy and understanding was so much more powerful than a tale of the tension between one woman who had freed herself from the restrictions of her home community and another repressed by the community. We never learn or acquire any understanding of why Ronit went one way and Esti stayed.

The ethical dilemma as presented is simplistic to the extreme. Films made by ultra-orthodox female students in an ultra-orthodox film school can put forth the position that there is no prohibition in Torah against a love affair between two women – and the relationship between Naomi and Ruth almost comes across as such a love affair. The Jewish prohibition is against adultery even though in practice ultra-orthodox communities reject lesbian relationships as a matter of practice. But they, as any community, can struggle with the issue. In contrast, this is never understood by the director. Reductionist ethics is both a bore and an insult to the community represented.

With the help of Alex Zisman

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