‘Disobedience’ is a Perfectly Messy Queer Love Story
Sebastián Lelio’s masterful film stands apart from the pack of recent queer cinema with its ambivalent ending
Disobedience, the new film by 2017 Oscar-winning director Sebastián Lelio, shows the messiness of real life in a way that other mainstream queer films have not. It concludes with a complicated ending that is neither fully tragic nor fully triumphant. Although the film takes place in a very specific community, it nonetheless represents a more universal queer love story than films that portray queer relationships as necessarily doomed for heartbreak or synonymous to straight relationships.
The film follows the reunion of old friends and one-time lovers, Ronit (Rachel Weisz) and Esti (Rachel McAdams). The death of Ronit’s rabbi father leads her to return to the London Orthodox community she was all but exiled from. We learn that Ronit’s other childhood best friend, Dovid, has married Esti and is poised to assume the leadership of the community, as the late rav’s protege. Dovid represents another nuanced aspect of the storyline, providing a twist on the traditional love triangle plot and raising questions about the connections between romantic love and the love of friendship. It’s clear that a lot of affection exists between these three main characters, but that only complicates their lives more.
The tensions and restrictions of the Orthodox faith are apparent early on — Dovid is unable to accept a hug from his grief-stricken friend, and there are many rules about dress and decorum (rules which Ronit no longer follows). It’s easy to see why Ronit felt she had no choice to leave after her relationship with Esti was discovered and swiftly condemned. When she returns to London, the ever-watchful eyes of her and Esti’s peers are reminiscent of the paranoia of being closeted. The cinematography reinforces that claustrophobia and oppression through the use of light — Ronit’s scenes in New York are vibrant and visually dramatic (including a beautifully shot scene on the plane from New York to London, where the sun moves across Ronit’s grieving face), while the scenes in Orthodox London are washed out and static.
As Ronit and Esti struggle to decide if their relationship can be renewed despite all the ways they have changed (or not changed) as adults, that conflict is compounded by the characters’ religious identities. For Ronit, the decision is easy — being back in the Orthodox community has only reminded her how little she belongs there, too used to the freedom of her life as a photographer in New York. She urges Esti to leave with her, because Esti has admitted she will never be happy in her marriage with Dovid. But Esti feels torn by opposing pressures: her sincere faith and love for her community, and the incontrovertible reality that her sexuality is forbidden by her faith. Esti grapples with this balancing act until confronted by her husband.
It’s typical to see such a religious queer character leave their community immediately and deal with the repercussions of losing their faith; Disobedience presents a different perspective instead, that of a character trying to reconcile two important aspects of their identity. Esti’s journey will feel familiar to any queer person who has tried to exist in the space between total loss of faith and the pain of self-denial.
Ronit and Esti’s relationship has consequences beyond their own happiness; Esti could lose her beloved job at the Orthodox girls’ school, and Dovid stands to lose out on the leadership position he’s been groomed for his entire life, if he proves unable to control his own household.
Dovid is an interesting character, and perhaps the most well-written out of the main trio. He dominates all the scenes he’s in, though perhaps this has more to do with the skill and understated charisma of actor Alessandro Nivola than the screenplay itself. It’s a bit disappointing that the straight male character has such an outsized impact in a story nominally about two queer women, but it’s refreshing at the same time to see a complex male ally who avoids the male savior trope — his genuine pain prevents that perception. He is both an obstacle between Ronit and Esti as well as their only ally in the London orthodox community (he, like Esti, seems to struggle with accepting certain tenets of their faith — illustrated poignantly when he tries to comfort Ronit in her grief but is unable to touch her).
There are no easy answers in the resolution of the film. It felt realistic, if disappointing. Like many first relationships, the two lovers were never that compatible — they were just available. You want to root for Ronit and Esti to be together, but they have both outgrown each other, in different ways. Ronit would always find it hard to understand Esti’s attachment to the Orthodox faith which so publicly rejected their love. And Esti only found herself attached to the idea of Ronit because she couldn’t see any other option within her religious life. Until she accepts that she would have to leave the Orthodox community to live her truth, she couldn’t allow herself the possibility of finding someone else. When she does decide to seek freedom, she realizes that although Ronit will always be special to her, they no longer belong together.
Disobedience is not without flaws; it would have been nice to see a deeper portrayal of Ronit’s grief, Rachel McAdams was unfortunately miscast, and the dialogue was often awkward (see the clip above). But the imperfection of Ronit and Esti’s relationship marks an important moment in modern queer cinema. While films like Call Me By Your Name; Love, Simon; and Brokeback Mountain are valuable in their own ways, we need more queer films that don’t have perfectly tied up endings (and definitely less soul-crushing tragedy). In other words, we need queer films that look like real life, where a happy ending can happen without the characters ending up together. Sometimes a happy ending still requires a little sadness, a little confusion, and a little regret.