Disobedience: a fraught examination of the tensions between faith and queerness

It’s amazing how a film can be so rooted in the present when it’s really about history. Personal history, romantic history, cultural and religious history all permeate the thematic presentation; and yet, the film’s almost hyper-realistic style plants it so firmly in its present that you can’t help but feel that you’re there. Let me explain.

Disobedience (Sebasti├ín Lelio, 2018) tells the story of Ronit, a woman who, upon learning of the death of her father, returns to the Orthodox Jewish community where she grew up. Having fled the community in North London for New York as a teenager, she is now confronted with what she left behind: principally, her childhood friends Dovid and Esti. We witness the trio’s internal struggle as they try to grapple with their conflicting cultural views and complicated history. And boy is it vivid.

Top Tip: Wrap up warm: the cold English winter penetrates through the screen

You feel the cold winter air in the graveyard mixed with stale cigarette smoke; you feel the lukewarmth of the weak autumn sun; you feel the vibrations from the low chantings of balding Jewish men singing in Hebrew. It occurred to me that this is the first film in which I have heard the crackling of a cigarette end when the smoke is breathed in. The visuals are very accurate to depressed English winter; the light balance is almost bizarrely true to real-life: hazy sunshine through windows leaves a glare in hallways, and some rooms are dark and grey in comparison. Still, this is not to say that lighting is not also used artistically and cinematically: after one particularly tender kiss, Ronit and Esti (I would call this a spoiler but it is literally on the poster) walk through into a bright light, symbolising hopefulness and release. In a similar way, music swells with the two girls through tender moments and heavy breathing.

Soundtrack Stand Out: The Cure, Lovesong

The soundtrack throughout is a beautiful compliment to the realistic yet captivating visuals (can we talk about Rachel Weisz’ cheekbones? They should have their own movie honestly). As much a feeling as it is a score of music, the sounds match the mood and stretch out the tense history between the main characters.

Britney Line Time:we don’t need to touch just breathe on me

Unfortunately there are a few things that took me out of the fantasy. Maybe this is the poor milennial in me talking, but who takes a taxi from the airport in London? And how can Ronit afford to continually change her flights? I don’t know many freelance photographers that have piles of money for this just lying around. The next weak point is just as trivial, don’t worry: sis, the wigs. I can’t take Rachel McAdams seriously in a shiny brown shake-and-go. Surely if Orthodox Jewish women wear wigs everyday they can get better quality. Fortunately there is quite a bit of intentional humour too, to break the tension; actually, just as often to play off said tension. In typical British fashion, humour and drama are blended awkwardly and yet superbly.

My biggest struggle in writing this came when reviewing my rating criteria. I was unsure whether this film had a uniquely queer perspective.

On one hand, the most obvious argument in favour of this is the way the sex scenes are presented. The change in Esti and the way she is filmed when having sex with a man and with a woman is evident. In the latter, there is a visible letting go of barriers and inhibitions which is a testament to both Lelio and McAdams. Before Ronit makes love to Esti, she takes her portrait, showing us that this is Esti at her most authentic and vulnerable. The desperation with which they explore each others’ bodies is reflected in consistent jarring jump cuts at the start of the scene. As it progresses, most of their clothing stays on and our view of the lovemaking is intimate and yet not overly voyeuristic. This particular scene feels special, as prior moments of romance between Esti and Ronit are either interrupted or rushed due to fear of getting caught. This is a dynamic I’m sure most queer people can relate to.

Biggest Gay Mood: spitting in Rachel McAdams’ mouth (or at least wanting to)

On the other hand, Disobedience was quite clearly intended for mainstream audiences: while I love Rachels both McAdams and Weisz, they are well-known, white, straight actors. Despite some of the visual and audio quirks, the stylisation is far from arthouse. Sebastian Lelio has a history of creating queer cinema, being heavily praised for the Oscar-winning A Fantastic Woman and its portrayal of transness in his native Chile, released around the same time as Disobedience. One is left to wonder whether a straight man can or should be at the forefront of what we call queer cinema.

Ultimately, I can say with confidence that I was touched by the film, so surely that’s the most important thing. I recently read the book it was based on, written by Naomi Alderman, and perhaps the most marked difference was the ending. Don’t worry, I won’t give too much away, but even though the film had an open ending, it was decidedly more idealistic. This, I suppose, calls back both the traditions of the medium, as well as the aforementioned mainstreaming.

Overall, Disobedience is still a harrowing and vulnerable look into a relatively unknown world. And the view through a queer lens only makes it, of course, that much stronger.

Click stars to view criteria

Header image via Collider

Disclaimer: Disobedience is not actually on Netflix (oops) but it is available on All 4 until 11th September in the UK.

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