'Disobedience' film review: A coiled exploration of self-denial, faith
Anchored by three strong performances and a light, graceful storytelling touch, the romantic drama "Disobedience" (opening in additional cities May 25) has a taut intensity in this exploration of faith, denial and identity.
In short: After the death of her father, photographer Ronit (Rachel Weisz) returns to the Orthodox Jewish community that shunned her years ago for her attraction to a childhood friend Esti (Rachel McAdams), who has since married their mutual school friend Dovid (Alessandro Nivola).
A simmering, constant intensity powers what - on the surface - seems like a straight-forward "returning home" indie drama. Ronit's return to the community that rejected her could have made a compelling story itself. Weisz imbues Ronit with a surface carefree attitude that belies an apprehension she carries as she tentatively re-enters the community that ran her out years ago. She must reconcile her past abandonment, her resentment toward her community and her unresolved, incomplete relationship with her father.
Ronit's return is a wrecking ball on the otherwise inert lives of Ronit, Esti and Dovid. It's a simple act that fundamental destabilizes their lives, forcing them to re-evaluate everything they know - from the relationships they have forged or neglected, all the way to the very nature of their faith. Great drama challenges a character's values and forces them to re-evaluate what defines their identity.
From the outset, it's unclear by Ronit has become estranged from her father or her old home. The tension is palpable the second she arrives at the door of Dovid, her old friend who eventually become like a son to her Ronit's father. The polite unease is ratcheted up when Esti re-enters Ronit's life.
On paper, the first act would read: daughter returns home, meets an old friend and his wife -- but entire first act is a slow burn infused with an undercurrent of a coiled, suppressed wanting of something just beyond their reach. "Disobedience" is defined by its rich subtext - characters seeming living successful, happy lives are forced to face troubling truths. Weisz and McAdams share a chemistry that is simultaneously icy and electrifying - initially compelling because it's unknown why Esti is so distant with Ronit, then because as Esti's inner turmoil becomes clear. She is torn by the stringent values of her modest life as wife and teacher, and their inherent conflict with the desires she has buried.
Weisz and McAdams are the film's heart but Nivola very nearly steals show with a stirring third act performance. His soft-spoken rabbi has the most to lose as the story unfolds - any change that happens will inevitably upend his life. Dovid's existence is predicated on the values of his community - the same group whose disdain for same-sex relationships drove Ronit away and forced Esti into living a lie.
Final verdict: Weisz, McAdams and Nivola form a brilliant trio of nuanced performances in this delicate, complex portrait of repression and self denial.
"Disobedience" screened during the 44th Seattle International Film Festival and is now playing in theaters. This dramatic romance has a running time of 114 minutes and is rated R for some strong sexuality.