Calling Disobedience a tonal mess isn’t a stretch. Sebastián Lelio — again tackling a queer narrative that he’s neither experienced or familiarized himself with – has no awareness of the nuance required to tell this story. The film stars Rachel Weisz as Ronit, a woman treated as a pariah for myriad of reasons when she returns to her Orthodox Jewish home upon her father’s death. Though one might expect her to be the central figure, bookending the film with a half-baked exploration of grief, her screen time is unevenly shared with her childhood friends Esti (Rachel McAdams) and Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), who were married while she was away.
Lelio and Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s adaptation of Naomi Alderman’s novel tries hard to balance a marital drama, an erotic drama, and three individual dramas focused on self-actualization and growth, never quite knowing how to land any of those. The dull tones and visual blandness will be excused by many as simply being reflective of the repressive in the narrative, but it’s a disappointment in light of the numerous queer romances that have explored similar territory with color and light. Actors shout or whisper, always speaking to each other in a manner more suited to a stage melodrama.
The relationship between Ronit, Esti, and Dovid exists in layers: childhood friendship, marriage, and low-key queer affair. It may be unfair to grade Disobedience against films like Carol or Battle of the Sexes, but their ability to navigate the female perspective while understanding that the male party is disposable is so refreshing in a love triangle movie. Lelio is somehow just as, if not more, invested in Dovid’s struggle as a religious man aware of his wife’s indiscretions than he is in Esti’s struggle with her queerness.
As a number of women I discussed this with following the screening noted, this is a queer film where the straight man gets to be the savior of the problem, even though he himself is part of the supposed problem. But outside of him, there’s no nuance to the depiction of the Orthodox Jewish community. They’re archaic villains that the Ronit and Esti are challenging with their love and limiting them to just that isn’t just boring, it’s disappointing.
Though I cannot claim to know the ins and outs of sex between two women, the sole erotic interaction between McAdams and Weisz felt lacking, a noticeably fake climax closing an otherwise tame scene that incomprehensibly features awkward spitting. There’s no hesitance, no chemistry, no raw emotion breaking through the repression in this moment that should be more intimate. Lelio is unfortunately no Donna Deitch, whose Desert Hearts serves as a beautifully executed example of a similar situation.
As some critics brought up with A Fantastic Woman, I’ll bring up with Disobedience: who exactly is Sebastián Lelio making these films about queer people for? They’re tame, they’re palatable, and they’re boring because of their distance from the experiences of these individuals. He’s a straight cis man making women’s pictures that carry a certain prestige due to subject matter alone, but both of these films feel like the work of an outsider looking in and failing to understand what the most interesting parts of these characters are. Wasting the talent of three actors who could have delivered a better film in the hands of a better director and writing duo is just an added insult.
Directed by Sebastián Lelio; written by Sebastián Lelio & Rebecca Lenkiewicz; based on the novel by Naomi Alderman; starring Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams, and Alessandro Nivola; 114 minutes.