The quality that distinguishes human beings from angels and beasts is our free will: “the power to disobey.” So says a spiritual leader to his flock in the opening scene of “Disobedience.”
That speaker is Rabbi Krushka, a widower whose daughter’s willfulness has resulted in her exile from the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in which she grew up.
The British rabbi’s words turn out to be his last; he collapses and soon dies. A trans-Atlantic call carries the news to his only child, Ronit (Rachel Weisz), who is now a New York-based photographer. After a few extravagant attempts to deal with the shock, she heads for London.
Most of the people from her former life aren’t especially happy to see her. A community newspaper’s death announcement says her father died childless.
Ronit is cautiously accepted as a houseguest by her former childhood friend Dovid (Alessando Nivola), a rabbi who was her father’s protege and is now married to Esti (Rachel McAdams), another childhood friend — or more. Ronit and Esti’s adolescent lust for each other seems to have been the crucial impetus for Ronit’s banishment.
Soon, Esti and Ronit are in bed together for the film’s R-rated centerpiece, although their biggest public indiscretion is kissing. Two members of the congregation spy them and file a complaint, threatening Esti’s job as a teacher in an Orthodox school and maybe Dovid’s chance to become Rabbi Krushka’s successor.
“Disobedience” is by Berlin-based Chilean director Sebastián Lelio, whose “A Fantastic Woman” won the 2018 Oscar for best foreign-language film. Each of these movies pits strong female protagonists against societal hostility, but with very different tones. Taking its cues from the religious severity of the community in which it’s set — and the London weather — Lelio’s latest film is austere, deliberate and rather chilly.
What warmth there is — and it is considerable — radiates from its three lead performers and a script (adapted from Naomi Alderman’s 2006 novel) that treats each of the central characters as neither hero nor villain.
Weisz (who also produced the movie) makes Ronit sympathetic if a little inconsiderate, with her frequent cigarettes as smoldering symbols of her tactlessness. McAdams’ Esti loses control when alone with Ronit, but at other times is all too careful and aware of what she might have to sacrifice for love. In perhaps the subtlest portrayal of his career, Nivola shows how Dovid struggles to reconcile his faith’s dogma and his own jealousy with, ultimately, his feelings of empathy.
The characters’ emotions are underscored, clunkily, in scenes that show Esti teaching “Othello,” Dovid discussing the sensual poetry of the Bible’s “Song of Songs” and Ronit and Esti humming along to the Cure’s “Lovesong.” These nudges aren’t needed in a movie whose best moments mirror the frustrations of real life, not the dramatic climaxes of Shakespearean tragedy or the blithe choruses of pop songs.
Rated R for some strong sexuality, brief coarse language, partial nudity and smoking.