According to the Judeo-Christian creation story, God created humans last. What does this say about us? Was humanity an afterthought, or were they the crown of creation? If the latter, then what makes human beings so special? These are questions Rabbi Rav Krushka asks his congregants at Synagogue in the opening scene of Sebastián Lelio and Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s Disobedience. Rav Krushka breaks the silence created by his perplexing questions with a simple word, “choice.” God gifted humanity with the freedom to choose how it will listen to God and how it will treat others.
Shortly after making this statement, Rabbi Krushka succumbs to his pneumonia, setting into motion the main plot of Disobedience. As the Orthodox Jewish community in an outer London borough begins funeral rituals, Ronit Krushka, the late Rabbi’s estranged daughter, unexpectedly appears at a community member’s doorstep. Her return is unexpected because she was shunned by her community for a romance she shared with another girl who now is the new Rabbi’s wife, Esti Kuperman. While Ronit genuinely seeks for whatever kind of closure she can have with her deceased father, she also discovers that her love for Esti remains. Her choice to navigate both challenges the fixed boundaries of sexuality in the faith community. Therefore, the film centers on two acts of choice: how will Ronit and Esti act on their love for each other, and how will the community and its new Rabbi, Dovid Kuperman respond?
Disobedience could have followed the trope of “rigid faith community versus morally fluid protagonist” with the implication that the latter’s rebellion against and escape from the former is the only way forward. Disobedience doesn’t allow for this. Instead, the faith is shown to be more malleable than one would expect as Rabbi Dovid and his disciples discuss the multiple interpretations of biblical texts like Song of Songs. Constant shots of perplexed characters surrounded by out of focus theological libraries reinforce the ironic ambiguity of faith. Whenever Ronit finds herself in conflict with the other community members, the dispute revolves around the traditional interpretations of things and not with the religion itself. Beautiful moments within the film are underscored by sung prayers that come from the very community that threatens the freedom of Ronit and Esti. While not at all perfect, religion is not portrayed as mutually exclusive to desire and beauty.
Disobedience spends less time trying to justify the romantic relationship between Ronit and Esti and more time trying to help audiences understand how they emotionally navigate their worlds. The affective synergy generated by voyeuristic close-ups and the deft performances of McAdams and Weiz is an emotional tour de force. It’s not about understanding why Ronit and Esti feel the way they do, it’s about experiencing life from their perspective. Returning to the use of music, Ronit and Esti are supported by a score that injects their fraught journey with cheer and hope. I appreciated that there were both spaces to morn and celebrate with the characters, as opposed to them being presented only as objects of pity. I do wish a little more attention would have been given to the religious community’s response to Ronit and Esti. While the film hints at where Rabbi Dovid intends to lead the community, the choices Ronit and Esti are prioritized by the filmmakers to the very end of the film.
Disobedience carves a fresh space in cinema dealing with faith and sexuality. While not afraid to confront both in all of their passion, beauty, and despair Lelio and Lenkiewicz manage to produce a story that leaves room for you to navigate tradition and sexuality, to choose how to perceive the “sexual other” in your midst.