"Disobedience" Portrays Another Hyper-dramatic Story of Forbidden Love

Sebastian Leilo’s "Disobedience" (2017), showing at the BFI Southbank until December the 16th, is a dramatic portrayal of a lesbian romance in the heart of an extremely Orthodox Jewish community in North London. Ronit (Rachel Weisz) is the daughter of a very esteemed rabbi (Anton Lesser), leading her life as a photographer in New York: the catalyst of the storyline is her father’s death, at the very beginning of the film, right in the middle of a speech on free will and men’s right to obey or disobey (a scene which defines the title of the film). Back in London for the pieties, Ronit reunites with the judgmental and very religious community she left behind; and particularly with Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), her father’s spiritual son and a rabbi himself, who is now married to Ronit’s old friend Esti (Rachel McAdams). The tension between the three of them - Ronit, Esti and Dovid - is clear from the very first reunion, and amplified by the fact that Ronit has just been now informed of their marriage, despite the fact that they were close as children; and that no one had told her that her father was sick. The film progresses in a grey depiction of grief, religious narrow-mindedness, and internalized homophobia: viewers find out Ronit and Esti had been caught together by the rabbi when they were young; and despite the sexual tension still present now, Esti has in fact married Dovid in order to free herself of her “sickness”, or her attraction to women.

Image: Allociné.fr

Ronit’s and Esti’s relationship progresses as they talk and reconcile with fond and not-so-fond memories of them together: they revisit old places, talk about the past, Esti goes with Ronit to her father’s house (which, like all his other things, has been left to the community). Stolen kisses are exchanged at night in the park. It is unclear why all these kisses and glances need to be exchanged in communal places where they can be witnessed by the various eyes of the religious observers in their community, as they in fact are: once Esti gets reproached by her husband and by the headmaster of the school she teaches in, they finally decided to have one day of passion in a hotel. The erotic scene which follows is uncomfortably drawn out: still almost fully clothed, Esti and Ronit spend hours reconnecting with each others’ (covered) bodies, to the point of sharing their spit. In an interview with Lenny Letter, Rachel Weisz explained that Leilo “storyboarded” the scene: “we can’t claim that we thought up all that spitting and moisture”, says Weisz, adding that Leilo was not interested in seeing breasts but in sharing an emotional moment. [1] Similarly, Leilo told The Guardian that he was trying to find out how these two lovers communicated, without going into pornography. The Guardian also cites, to contrast the two, the sex scene in Kechiche’s Blue Is the Warmest Color (2013), now famous because of the director’s abuse on the two actresses: apparently, it is impossible to find a middle ground between an abusive director forcing actresses to stay naked for hours; and a supposedly intimate scene where female bodies remain covered, almost to add to the inner shame especially felt by Esti’s character. [2]

After their day of passion, however, the two women are almost immediately brought back to reality: Esti finds out she is pregnant, whereas Ronit decides she has to go back to New York. As she leaves for her flight, Esti tries and fails to abort her baby, instead deciding to plea her husband for the freedom to leave him and raise the child in a less religious community. Dovid grants her this freedom at the end of the film, in a rather powerful scene where he refuses to stand in as the new rabbi and, after remembering Ronit’ father’s last words on free choice, looks at Esti in the eyes and tells her “you are free”. At the end, all three characters embrace in a loving hug. Esti is seen sleeping on the couch, Ronit goes back to New York: all of this, after a dramatic kiss shared in a cab, and without explanation on why they cannot be together now (especially after Ronit has asked Esti to join her in New York).

The film is overall unconvincing: the weird pacing of the editing does not help, as doesn’t the constant grey of the color palette. Weisz and McAdams fit their roles, and Nivola truly shines in his portrayal of the pious and conflicted husband: despite this, and the complex because unresolved depiction of issues of free will and homosexuality within religious communities; the storyline remains unsubstantial, especially in terms of Esti’s and Ronit’s relationship, which does not move past their shared discomfort at disobeying. This year, the BFI has featured through the 2018 LFF many films which present lesbian romances: “Rafiki”, “Lizzie”, “The Favorite” (also with Weisz) are only some of the names. Sadly, Leilo’s “Disobedience” is probably the weakest in this line (where “The Favorite” shines instead), using a textbook plot of forbidden gay love, featuring the disapproving religious father, issues of internalized homophobias, and stolen kisses witnessed by people who shouldn’t.

Now that films presenting lesbian love seem to be more prominent and popular than ever before, especially with this very last LFF, it seems like the issue has become less that of representation; and more that of moving forward from the tragic and dramatic stories previous films on male homosexual desire had to go through. Pioneering mainstream LGBT films like Brokeback Mountain (2005) have paved the way for more joyous representations of male gay relationships, especially in the past year with the acclaimed Call Me By Your Name (2017) and with rom-coms such as Love, Simon (2018); but have they paved the way for lesbian romances as well? Based on Disobedience, that does not seem to be the case. The increased prominence of gay women in films, however, leaves us hopeful: may this be the last year we have to witness hyper-dramatic lesbian relationships on the screen, and let’s instead move to more hopeful portrayals of what should not be forbidden love.

Image: Allociné.fr

[1] https://www.lennyletter.com/story/rachel-weisz-rachel-mcadams-interview-disobedience

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/film/2018/nov/17/sebastian-lelio-disobedience-interview-rachelweisz-naomi-alderman

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