Is Disobedience thoughtful queer cinema or crass Oscar bait?

Sebastian Lelio’s film about a love triangle in an Orthodox Jewish community is somehow as demure as it is grandiose.

Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams in Disobedience

Poor teachers in movies: they rarely get to teach subject matter that won’t directly correlate to what’s about to happen to them. Brief teaching scenes are a great way to shoehorn in some intellectual foreshadowing and, since the teachers are often teaching high schoolers, they offer a neat and tidy way to draw comparisons between your story and whichever Shakespeare play it most resembles.

There’s a scene like this in Sebastian Lelio’s Disobedience, which is in its broadest strokes a love triangle set within the Orthodox Jewish faith, but divided along some specific class lines. It begins with Orthodox schoolteacher Esti (Rachel McAdams) discussing the implications of Othello with her class. The broad strokes of Othello, of course, involve a love triangle divided along class lines that becomes murderous.

One would assume that Lelio is setting the scene for his film to play out much like Othello but this device is mostly a fakeout. Disobedience is a much more reserved tale than pretty much any Shakespeare play, and that particular bit of foreshadowing points to the kind of Oscar-goading middlebow project it probably once took the form of — and sometimes threatens to be.

Ronit (Rachel Weisz) grew up in a British Jewish Orthodox community as the only daughter of a prominent rabbi. She has since left the faith and moved to New York, where she works as a photographer until the day she learns of her father’s death. Ronit returns home from the funeral to find that her two best childhood friends Dovid (Alessandro Nivola) and Esti have married — a surprising twist to Ronit, since she knows that Esti’s attracted to women from their own teenage dalliances. In fact, it’s being caught with Esti that got her booted from the community in the first place. As Ronit struggles to reintegrate into the fold and Dovid is tapped to replace the rabbi at the head of the community, the two women reignite their tentative love affair — one in which Esti has considerably more at stake than the already “escaped” Ronit.

A recent piece in Vulture alleged that the current crop of mainstream queer cinema isn’t doing much for the Queer Cinema cause by being so mainstream and so demure in its depictions of same-sex relationships. You could certainly transfer some of that criticism to Disobedience, which wields repression and gloom with surgical precision. Shot in muddy earth tones (the Orthodox colour palette is already pretty limited outside of foggy England, mind you) that only brighten when the love affair is at its apex, Disobedience isn’t so much a film about a same-sex relationship as it is a film about the idea (or illusion) of free will. Ronit has abandoned the religion she grew up in, but she still can’t shake its effect; when she returns home and has a tense shabbat dinner with her family, the next thing she does is purchase a wig that she clearly isn’t required to wear. Conversely, Esti has spent her entire life repressing feelings she knows she’ll never truly keep at bay while labouring under the delusion that she doesn’t really have a choice — even though Ronit has proven that there’s potential outside of the religious sanctum.

Lelio isn’t overly critical of the religion. One of the film’s greatest strengths is how he refuses to draw clear lines in the sand between the characters and keeps their own contradictory feelings and motivations on the surface. It would be extremely easy to turn Dovid into a one-note caricature and the only thing that stands in the way of true love, but Lelio isn’t interested in telling that story. It’s not always a tremendously subtle film with its swelling soundtrack and à-propos sermons, but the fact that it never stoops to creating a villain out of any of its characters goes a long way. It helps that all three of the leads are solid, unshowy actors who manage to make even the film’s all-out Oscar-reel moments feel organic.

Yet Disobedience also feels frustrating and somewhat unrealized at its core. The fact that the relationship is so much more of a risk for Esti than it is for Ronit creates an uneven balance that’s strangely lacking in passion. Though there’s one sex scene that’s likely to monopolize the majority of the media attention, Disobedience remains the kind of film where one character runs after another’s cab tearfully — incredibly well-observed and subtle at times, but also unquestionably a movie where shit happens just like in the movies.

Like Lelio’s previous film A Fantastic Woman, Disobedience is concerned with the way outside forces upend the status quo – for better or for worse. (In both cases, the inciting incident is rooted in grief, though the films take pretty sharp tonal turns from there.) Unlike that film, however, Disobedience tends to feel airless as a love story. It’s more efficient as an exploration of faith as it relates to sexuality and how different people absorb that sometimes conflicting information. (One of the more fascinating aspects that remains more or less unexplored is the general hypocrisy of the community, which seems to understand and even forgive the characters at times but turn their nose up whenever there’s someone there to see them.) Like many arthouse films about so-called delicate topics, Disobedience spends too much time being wrapped up in the presentable and the aestheticized and not enough time wrapped up in the now. ■

Disobedience opens in theatres on Friday, May 18. Watch the trailer here: