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Movie Review: “Disobedience” reveals an illicit love

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Director Sebastián Lelio’s “Disobedience” takes place in an ultra-orthodox religious community. It’s difficult to follow. It begins with a lengthy speech. The characters are almost forbidden from having any fun. Yet I highly recommend it.

The film begins with Rav Krushka (Anton Lesser), a revered leader in a London ultra-orthodox Jewish community. His speech is quite good, until he’s cut off by what appears to be a stroke. As he’s helped to the floor of the synagogue, the movie cuts to his daughter, Ronit (Rachel Weisz), a photographer in New York.

Ronit gets the call in the middle of a shoot. We don’t know who calls her, but the next moment she’s knocking back drinks in a bar, and moments later humping a stranger in the bar’s bathroom. As Ronit patiently takes a plane across the ocean, and arrives back in London, we already know without being told that she’s a black sheep of the community.

Lelio is excellent throughout at getting across the meaning of a scene, and the character of a person, even if the details are too esoteric to fully comprehend. For example, when Ronit is first greeted by Dovid Kuperman (Alessandro Nivola), the Rav’s favorite pupil whom we’ve already met, they instinctively recoil from a hug. That hugging, we interpret, now religiously proscribed, was once common to them. According to their faces and body language, they were once friends, maybe more.

As Ronit tries to re-enter this sequestered world of her youth, the technique of showing and never telling forces us to watch closely, always vigilant for a clue to help interpret the characters’ interactions.

That can be especially difficult depending on your familiarity with this religion and society. But there’s always just enough to help. That Dovid must never be touched by a woman other than his wife, for example, is further emphasized in another scene when he carefully passes women in a tight hallway by sliding along a wall.

But who is Dovid’s wife? Ronit doesn’t know. She’s been estranged from her father for years, and hence the rest of the community. Soon Ronit and the audience learn it is Ronit and Dovid’s childhood friend Esti (Rachel McAdams), which creates the film’s greatest conflict.

“I’m frum,” Ronit tells Esti later, removing a wig from her head as they walk and talk down a neighborhood street at dusk. Ronit is trying to be funny, but all the other women are wearing wigs, and I scribbled ‘Look up frum, and what it has to do with wigs,’ as they talked.

A complete and total understanding isn’t really necessary, however. What’s important is that we know how strictly these people abide by their beliefs. Knowing that emphasizes especially how difficult life has been for Esti during Ronit’s absence.

For Ronit this is also something of a shock, and the reason might qualify as a spoiler if you want to see the film cold. Esti was in love with Ronit when the three friends were all high-school age. They acted on their feelings. Ronit went away. Esti’s feelings did not.

This is a difficult love triangle, and the feelings boiling under the placid surface seem always ready to explode.

Esti and Ronit are being watched. Esti’s job, her family, her life in the community is at stake for making a wrong move. As an audience we can’t help feel this, and feel part of Esti’s pain. Ronit is bisexual, and the fling was so much more to Esti, who admits to being only attracted to women, living what amounts to a false life under her husband’s roof.

These later passages of the film are deeply moving, with a sad air of desperation that clings to all three members of this love triangle in different ways. There are also surprising turns. This is a love story, but not the kind you might expect, the three people revolving at its center acting the way real people might, with motivations that are not always clear.

Most of “Disobedience” is a master class in the art of minimalistic storytelling and that’s partly why its ending is so curious, and a little disappointing. It also features a lengthy, important speech, this one explaining the first, even explaining what we are to make of it. Of all the sins portrayed in “Disobedience,” that was the one that stung.

The rest of the film is just so strong, so patiently savage, it does not need the final rites given to it. (R) 114 min. 4 STARS

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