Movie Review: “Disobedience”
Disobedience, 2018. Dir. Sebastián Lelio
My friend and I made a list of predictions as we walked into the theatre to see Disobedience. It’s a film about two queer women, and when Hollywood takes on such a subject, unspoken qualifiers come with it. Tropes that the entertainment industry cannot seem to shake have been present in every female queer movie we’ve ever seen, and the checklist of the reused and recycled storylines that all of these films boast is significant. To our credit, but not to our surprise, many of our predictions about this film were correct.
Set in an Orthodox Jewish community in Northern London, Sebastián Lelio’s Disobedience tells the story of a rekindled relationship between once teenaged lovers Esti (Rachel McAdams) and Ronit (Rachel Weisz). Ronit is reunited with her childhood peers and family when she comes back home from New York for her father Rabbi Krushna’s funeral, and as a result she finds herself thrown back into the religious community she so boldly left. It is a story of faith, identity, and female relationships.
Ronit’s return to London finds her face to face with Dovid — her cousin, her childhood best friend, and her father’s apprentice. Excusing himself from sitting shiva for her late father, he stands outside his door and tells her that they weren’t expecting her. She balks. He lets her in. As she makes her way through the house it becomes increasingly apparent that she is out of place. “You look very New York,” someone suggests. Ronit pulls her leather jacket closer, nods, and heads out back for a cigarette.
She has missed quite a lot: her father’s illness, her father’s subsequent death, and Dovid’s marriage to Esti. Though her peers would disagree, it’s not really her fault that she’s missed all of this; sure, she left home, but no one ever called her. She takes all of it in stride though, just as she takes Dovid up on his offer to stay with him and Esti while she’s in town. It’s an awkward arrangement at first — it seems the two women might not like each other very much anymore. In reality, it’s quite the opposite, and Dovid is none the wiser to any of it.
Despite their close quarters, it takes about 45 minutes for Esti and Ronit to be completely without the presence of men, and it takes an hour for them to touch. Perhaps this is a component of the Orthodox Jewish setting, a facet of the movie that I cannot speak to, but in a two hour long movie about two queer women’s relationship, this feels significant. It’s not necessarily negative, as it allows sexual tension to grow and the world around them to gain detail and color. And in some ways, the decision prioritizes the characters themselves over their sexual orientations, which is not always the case in movies featuring LGBTQ+ characters. However, it essentially makes the first half of the movie about a heterosexual couple and their photographer friend who’s in town. When they finally do touch, though, they don’t stop. There are kisses and touches and sex that, to Lelio’s credit, is not tender or gentle or sweet. It is a six-minute long scene between two women that is explicitly erotic. It’s urgent and hungry and years in the making, and, not to mention, gives a new meaning to the phrase “spit take”.
In an interview with IndieWire, Lelio states that the sex was about “how they find themselves through getting lost” and was meant to convey the “paradox between being lost and deeply in touch with who you are”. And while Disobedience is obviously beholden to the ethos of the religious community in which it takes place, being queer and being lost are not mutually exclusive. One does not equate to the other, and queer sex can in fact exist in a space free of any negativity or consequences, though the history of queer cinema and even this film itself would have you begging to differ.
Notably, actress and producer Rachel Weisz thinks a bit differently about it. As she says to Autostraddle, “for Esti it’s also about her liberation. It’s her true self….They’re stuck in this world of patriarchal oppression and suddenly they’re alone and finally free to love each other.” It’s about autonomy and agency. They’re not lost; they’re free. But as (sadly) groundbreaking as the six minute sex scene is, it only happens after three shorter heterosexual ones. The narrative purpose of this is clear enough — Esti and Ronit’s relationship is only exceptional if there is something to compare it to; however, to put it bluntly — what a drag. There’s enough unexciting straight sex in this world. There’s no need for any more of it.
Unfortunately, having gay stories on the big screen at all is still an accomplishment, and consequently, Disobedience is exceptional just by being extant. It’s certainly not ideal that queer stories are almost exclusively present through the means of those who don’t belong to the community, but at least they exist, and at least this one features Oscar-winning and nominated actresses. But it should in no way be too much to ask that the people to whom these stories belong are the ones who get to share them. Generally, LGBTQ+ lives are only allowed in mainstream film when they are presented and packaged by (usually white) cishet people. When we try to tell our own stories, it‘s “too risky”. Which is a shame, because had this film involved gay women in its creative team, it likely would have been elevated from acceptable to excellent.
Like many of its predecessors, Disobedience is a hopeful tragedy. Any love and joy that Ronit and Esti create for themselves create pain and turmoil in their wakes. Their relationship only comes at the cost of another, and everyone around them would be happier if they were not together. It is a queer film that holds the same bitterness as most others. But despite all of the tropes and angst, you should still see it. It was visually beautiful and ultimately told an important story. And maybe if we give enough queer movies our money, they’ll finally let us make one for ourselves.
Gays Buried: None
Queer Director: No
Queer Writer: No
Queer Actor(s): No