Disobedience is the kind of movie that moves relatively slowly, but the entire time, you can't take your eyes off of it. The opening scene is fairly memorable: an Orthodox rabbi gives a sermon touching on free will among both angels and beasts, right before he drops dead of a heart attack.
Rachel Weisz plays Ronit, the woman we soon learn was this rabbi's daughter. She's working as a photographer in New York when she gets the call; she heads home to her Jewish community in London immediately. It turns out, she hasn't been back in many years. When she reaches the house where a memorial is taking place, an old friend, Dovid (an effectively restrained Alessandro Nivola) answers the door and says to her, "We weren't expecting you."
What follows is a series of awkward encounters, person after person surprised to see Ronit there -- including Esti (an excellent Rachel McAdams), someone it takes Ronit a minute to realize is now married to Dovid. It seems they were all best friends, once upon a time.
Dovid, fully aware of a more complicated history that unfolds in due time, offers to let Ronit stay with him and Esti. Ronit's estrangement from her rabbi father is merely half the story, but certainly always relevant.
Disobedience thus reveals itself to be a love story unlike any other heretofore told. Surely we have seen plenty of same-sex love stories, and we have seen a few movies about strictly conservative Jewish families. We don't see a lot of movies combining the two, particularly with this particular brand of orthodoxy.
Today I learned that orthodox Jewish women often wear wigs, to conform to the religious requirement of covering their hair. Orthodox Jewish men cover their heads with a yarmulke; the women, evidently, have a sheitel. When Ronit arrives back at her Jewish community in London, all the other women around are clearly wearing these wigs, and if you know little about the faith, it's oddly distracting at first, until the film makes it a point of drawing attention to them.
Weisz, for her part, has a fantastic head of hair all her own, so it's nice she mostly keeps it uncovered. It's probably halfway through the film before her romantic past with Esti becomes explicitly clear, and before long they have a fairly explicit sex scene. At lest one thing happens between the two of them that baffled me, but then, I'm a gay man; the lesbian friend I saw it with had no particular insight either. Otherwise, though, even the sex scenes are integral to the story, a shift in the characters' journey rather than any means of simply titillating the audience.
In fact, Disobedience is impressive in its practice of giving the female characters both self-assurance and agency. Even in an ultraconservative context, once Esti is faced with the life choices she has made and where she is now, rather than shutting down and rolling over for her husband, her immediate instinct is to assert herself. It's a beautiful thing to see, especially given that the man, while struggling to come to terms with his own circumstances, respects her choices.
As such, this isn't a movie about shame, as you might expect, so much as it is about coming face to face with the consequences of your own choices early in life, and choosing how to deal with them now. Life is complicated, even more so when not exactly existing in the mainstream of society, and there is no manner of offering any neatly wrapped happy ending for these characters. Satisfying conclusions, though -- that's another matter.
The script, based on the novel of the same name by Naomi Alderman, more than once elicits the expectation of a pretty clichéd movie scene: running through an airport; catching up to a loved one in a taxi cab. In ever case, however, the story subtly turns in an unexpected direction, which is the basic nature of the entire story in Disobedience, a deeply affecting love story whose depth slowly sneaks up on you.