Masterfully written and directed by Sebastián Lelio, Disobedience is set in an insular North London Orthodox Jewish community, where religion and custom are the glue that binds. “Honour” is prized above individual autonomy or self-determination, as devout rabbi Dovid (Alessandro Nivola) reminds wayward protagonist Ronit (Rachel Weisz) from the first act. In a refreshingly original twist on the forbidden love genre, the bubble of tradition is burst not by the ‘defector’ who has returned to shake things up, but rather by an insider, Esti (Rachel McAdams), who sees in her old friend’s homecoming an opportunity to liberate herself and realise her repressed desires.
As a voluntary outsider, Ronit has embraced modernity and feminism by fleeing the religious strictures of her family’s close-knit community and moving to New York. But the rejection has gone both ways. Ronit learns soon after his death that her father, Rav Krushka, has disowned her and given his entire legacy to the synagogue. While it is a small independent film with limited distribution, Disobedience is probably one of the most relevant films of 2018. Its themes touch on very real problems and experiences for individuals dwelling within enclosed religious “culture communities” whose beliefs and practices often differ dramatically from the host cultures within which they dwell.
Conservative religions are structured in patriarchal dominance and gender inequality, as well as moral and physical forms of separation from the modern, liberal states in which they quietly exist, as though in a parallel universe. The film’s focus, however, is not on the problem of social cohesion, but rather the impact of internal community’s traditions on individuals within those communities, especially when individuals cannot access the liberal state’s legal remedies or when family members refuse to adhere to them. As in any conservative religious community, “honour” and family are given precedence over individual flourishing and fulfilment, and persons who dishonour their families by seeking self-determination are shamed at the very least and shunned at worst.
Ronit comes into the community like a lamb, prepared to honour her father’s memory with the utmost respect to local customs and traditions, even going ‘frum’ and donning a wig at one point. However, her mere presence in Esti’s house and the freedom she embodies are like the tonic that Esti craves for her self-inflicted wounds. This highlights the extent to which individuals born within a conservative religious cultural community do not lose their free will, but rather the confidence to assert it, often by internalising the “voice” of the community’s guardians (some of whom may be their own parents) and confusing it with their own. This is exactly what Ronit has not done, but her liberation from her father’s rules has come with a price, for she has forfeited his approval too.
The story’s centre of gravity is this father-daughter relationship more than the central lesbian love affair between the two women. It is her father’s religious traditions and his own partial failure to exercise any personal discernment with regard to them that is finally called into question by Dovid, the one person who is able to perceive the profundity of the departed Rav’s final words, and to elevate them into a living ethic. It is partly because he is male that Dovid has been given the liberty and status to do so, but he does not fail in this responsibility, which makes him the most inspiring character in the film.
That he must overcome his personal prejudices to honour the memory of Rav Krushka makes him a principled ethical character who is truly worthy of the position from which he has chosen to recuse himself. His personal awakening is at least as great, if not more profound, than Esti’s and involves a greater sacrifice, because it entails eschewing privileges and prestige, as well as letting go of resentment. Instead of exploiting his social standing to take bitter revenge on his wife, Dovid chooses to take the moral high ground, and to follow his religion’s most humanising moral precepts instead of sacrificing human flourishing on the altar of tradition.
Disobedience represents the reality of cultural enclaves in which women are enslaved by their fertility, over which they are permitted virtually no control, and disinherited and rendered dependent upon men, who are the sole heirs of family wealth. Having been stripped of agency and autonomy, many women in minority cultural communities depend in a very real way upon the discretion of male family members or community leaders for their liberation. This film highlights why men, more than women, hold the reigns when it comes to rectifying this dehumanising situation.
Dovid’s introspection and his interior struggle with his own temptations are living proof of the Rav Krushka’s legacy, which was a reminder that humans are neither angels nor beasts. Neither are we ethereal creatures who know no earthly temptations, nor are we passive captives to our animal instincts. We are uniquely able to choose. Disobedience is a poignant reminder that religion is not above the realm of human decision, but is a product of it, and that whether it becomes rigid and doctrinaire or flexible and humane is very much in the hands of the men who mould it.