Disobedience paints a bleak tale of faith and forbidden romance

Chilean director Sebastián Lelio explores a secret lesbian relationship in an Orthodox Jewish community.

This piece is from our continuing coverage of Sydney Film Festival over the next month. Check out the rest of the content here

Following his success with the Oscar-winning A Fantastic Woman (2017), Chilean director Sebastián Lelio continues his fascination with the struggle of women in modernity in his first English language film, Disobedience. The film explores the difficulties of being queer in a religious community through the romance between two women Ronit (Rachel Weisz) and Esti (Rachel McAdams)—two women who are forced to suppress their feelings by their strict Jewish Orthodox community.

The film begins with an opening monologue from Ronit’s estranged father, the elderly Rabbi Rav Krushka (Anton Lesser) who speaks on the free will of man, before he collapses suddenly to the floor. Following his death, Ronit returns to the Orthodox Jewish neighbourhood she grew up in, where she reunites with childhood friends Dovid (Alessandro Nivola) and Esti, who have since married each other. From here, the underlying tensions between Esti and Ronit begin to surface, from moments of childhood reminiscence to Esti’s support of Ronit through a tense family dinner. It is only at the beginning of the second act that the first elements of romance appear on screen with a shared kiss set against the dark, yearning tones of The Cure’s ‘Lovesong’. This slow pacing works well in establishing a sense of emotional repression, while also cementing a sense of realism within the film.

As Ronit and Esti’s relationship deepens, they become more open in their affections: they hold hands in the park where they shared their first kiss, they embrace in an alleyway, they spend an intimate night in a hotel room. However, these moments are tarred with a sense of anxiety and a knowledge that this cannot be their lives. The bleak, almost monochrome colour palette of the film—rarely varying from black, white and grey—reflects this hopelessness, and harkens back to some of the grimmer scenes in A Fantastic Woman.

Weisz and McAdams have put painstaking research into their performances, and the setting and the costuming anchor us in our reality. But the script sometimes falls short of the film’s visual attributes, occasionally straying into generic, impassioned one liners. The theme of free will’s central role in the human condition is revisited frequently in the film’s final act. All three of the central characters, in one way or another, espouse the necessity for freedom, which ultimately feels a little forced. The lack of a clear resolution at the close of the film will likely perturb some viewers, but it is an ending that stays true to the realistic portrayal of the hardships queer people face in conservative communities.