Sebastián Lelio’s Disobedience is loaded with physical and emotional barriers, preventing the two women at the centre from leading full lives. Staying true to Naomi Alderman’s book, the adaptation is almost too subtle for its own good, and to an extent relies on purists’ knowledge of the source material. Whether this style of storytelling fits for the average viewer or not, I believe it to be inarguably one of the most powerful love stories between women to reach the screen—and I don’t mind working a little bit for it.
Ronit (Rachel Weisz) and Esti’s (Rachel McAdams) passion is intermittent. Finding its way through niceties in public and polite conversation, a timer begins to tick, and with each sound becomes louder and harder to ignore. When it runs out, the desire can no longer be held back, and they’re overcome by it. The need to touch and to be touched becomes tangible, as they acknowledge who they truly are and not who the world wants them to be. The longing for connection makes the orthodox community a barren and cold place for Esti; Ronit is like a flame amongst the black—it’s only natural for someone so devoid of real intimacy to be drawn to the warmth, to be wanting of it with every inch of herself. And once they start, with just a kiss, they can’t stop. Love is in many ways addictive, and in equal parts Ronit and Esti have been clean for a long time.
Ronit and Esti’s relationship began in their teenage years, and through the nosiness and subtle blackmail of the people around them, they begin to be reduced to school girls again. Esti is called to the head mistress’ office after being caught kissing in a park, Ronit sits listening to a domestic between husband and wife on the stairs, Esti’s “I’m late for school.” Members of the community look down on their decisions, see their detours from what they consider to be righteousness as rebellion, and Ronit and Esti are forced to hide. With mannerisms that dismiss any confidence, it’s no secret words are sharp in this neck of the woods. When Ronit, Esti, and Dovid sit down around a table with family friends it’s most apparent how this dynamic works. After an awkward initial re-meeting the women seem to sync up and fall back into a natural rhythm. Esti laughs to herself as Ronit riles up the conservatives in the room, and when either of them are challenged the other speaks up, perhaps with only a couple of words—but as the film consistently proposes, even the smallest acts of disobedience can be monumental.
As well as exploring the oppression inside the strict Jewish community, the film handles the idea of patriarchal roles. The men are the ones in positions of power here, and they discuss Ronit and Esti in a manner which is controlling and demeaning. To them, the women aren’t people with complex emotions—they’re problems to either be brushed under the carpet or groomed into appropriate wives.
“Oh, is it? The way it should be? Or is it just institutional obligation?”
When Esti and Ronit take the tube to another part of town, the invisible constraints begin to loosen, and they can finally just be. The silent walk to the hotel gives insight on how in tune with each other they are. They both know what’s about to happen, and although visibly nervous, there’s an excitement that feels more like butterflies in the stomach. But they still seek seclusion. They go to a hotel room, and the temptation is to see what they do as an act of shame—after all, Esti is cheating on her husband—but the all-consuming nature of their relationship is hard to argue with, and is so observably right that their consummation doesn’t present as sinful. The anonymity of their surroundings is safer for them, and a look into what might have been another life had they met under different circumstances—a breather before they inevitably return to the smothering atmosphere they come from. That timer from before begins to quicken its pace, and they can last less and less time without giving themselves over to what they want. Every graze of the hand and prolonged stare further breaks their chains.
The beautifully choreographed sex scene (directed respectfully by Lelio and controlled with grace by Weisz and McAdams) is allowed to be downright dirty. Sexually it’s almost performative, the spitting, the length of it, and the time taken. It’s perfectly earned and unlike a lot of sex scenes between women doesn’t have the grossness that can come with gratuitous filmmaking. As great as Lelio is, it comes across like it’s the ladies’ show. Weisz’s love of the source material and the pairs’ interest in producing the film the correct way stretches for miles.
Esti is like another person altogether when out of her conservative clothing and wig, with a physicality unlike what we had previously seen of her. She is partially dominant for the first time, and she uses every piece of herself to make love to Ronit with a change that stems from the inside out. As some have previously pointed out, the spitting in the mouth can be analysed as a metaphorical impregnation, which makes sense given the timing of Ronit’s return concludes with Esti’s pregnancy. When Ronit ends the encounter with the click of a camera shutter, she has a memory she can treasure forever, something she wished she had done with her father while he was alive.
For some, Esti’s arc wasn’t complete enough, but in that lies a failure to understand what Esti really wants. As much as she loves Ronit, placing all her hopes and wishes in life upon her was never the healthy or realistic option. They’re wildly different—perfect for each other—but wildly different. Esti in many ways faces bigger challenges than Ronit, who is able to have relationships with men. Esti is a lesbian, her chances of happiness are slim to none in her current position and hidden true nature. While Ronit can fly off, the consequences for Esti are too grim, and if something were to go wrong between them she would again be lost in the crowd. Esti’s transformation shouldn’t be undermined; she begins the story following Ronit, and later is the one leading her through the synagogue like a guide, making the occasional eye contact as if to say “It’s okay, just follow me.” They switch their roles from time to time, but what’s consistent is that they have each others’ backs no matter what. The glances, silent defence and support they lend to each other is what keeps them going.
Esti says “that is me” when asked about her dedication to teaching, and in raising a child she can find value, not because it’s what’s expected of her or what has been forced, but because it’s what she truly wants. Ronit simply doesn’t want the same things, and so the pair are destined to be star-crossed lovers who could never be in the right place at the right time to make it work. Although this is a bitter pill to swallow, the real message is one of self liberation. From love, religion, community, all of it.
Disobedience challenges our ideas of freedom, love, and personal goals. Its ending is beautiful in that it might feel like a compromise for both women, but it is in fact both their choice—finally, their choice. Whether the outcome serves them well is on their shoulders, and while it hurts, the final “I love you” outlasts any bitterness. It’s a hard ending, part upsetting, part dignified.
The willingness to create an ending bound to cause mixed emotions in viewers is brave, and while it’s understandably not to everybody’s taste, it does speak volumes for the characters and all the hard work put in to making them believable, angry, sad, sexual. They are women with agency over their own existence and pain.