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Disobedience is disappointing

If you were to revisit the house you grew up in, would you take a look at your old bedroom? The answer is yes, of course you would—unless, that is, you are Ronit, Rachel Weisz’s character in Sebastian Lelio’s Disobedience. If you are Ronit, you will instead ponder your late father the rabbi’s rich collection of Talmudic literature, then kiss Esti, the lost love of your teenage years, with tongues.

There should a joke here about pastrami and tongue sandwiches, but Disobedience has no jokes. Adapted from Naomi Alderman’s novel, Disobedience is set in an Orthodox Jewish community in London. Jews are supposed to be smart and funny, but this lot are slow-witted and mirth-impaired, like black-clad, black-hatted Stepford Wives.

The exotic setting and the high seriousness do not prevent Disobedience from following the same rules of all the other films about going back home. Ronit (Rachel Weisz) has fled to Brooklyn and become an art photographer. Her father dies in mid-peroration in the synagogue; skillfully, Anton Lesser manages to drop dead without making us laugh. When the call comes, Ronit is photographing an saggy old man who is covered in prison tattoos. She gets drunk, has sex with a strange man in a lavatory stall, goes ice skating, and then rends her clothing in the traditional gesture of mourning.

The next day, she lands in London and goes to a house in the suburb where she grew up. The door is answered by Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), another close friend from her youth. ‘We weren’t expecting you,’ he says. Her relatives are no warmer. She is stunned to find out that Dovid and Esti (Rachel McAdams) are now married. Dovid, the son the rabbi never had, has assumed a befitting seriousness, and Esti has assumed the ill-fitting wig of an Orthodox wife.

Ronit recoils from assuming her old place in the community. The community, having assumed that she was gone forever, recoils from Ronit. She offers to stay at a hotel for the seven days of mourning, but Dovid and Esti insist that she stay with them. Soon, all three are emitting odd groans of repressed desire, or perhaps indigestion. Ronit and Esti are observed kissing at night on a tennis court, and Dovid finds out. The women elope to a hotel for a sub-pornographic sex scene which is all the worse for insisting on its artiness. I never thought I’d hear myself say this, but Yentl did it better. We learn that Esti has always loved Ronit, and that when Ronit ran away, the rabbi persuaded Esti to marry Dovid. Will Esti stay or follow her desires and cast her wig to the wind?

Visually and aurally, Disobedience is a pleasure. Danny Cohen, the cinematographer, draws coldly beautiful washes of white and grey from the misty London winter, and Matthew Herbert’s score is tensely austere without succumbing to the usual klezmeric clichés. But psychologically, Disobedience never quite produces the heat it should, despite strenuous bouts of girl-on-girl tongue action from Weisz and McAdams.

The emotions are often as blanched as the palette. McAdams endows Esti’s predicament with real tragedy, but we never quite find out who Ronit and Dovid are, or who all three of them were when they were younger. When Esti refers to Ronit’s late mother, Ronit dismisses her. As with her inexplicable failure to visit her childhood bedroom, this raises a question that Sebastian Lelio doesn’t bother to answer. Nor, as Lelio neglects to explore the potential rewards of living in an intensely religious community, do we understand why Ronit has suffered by leaving one, or why Esti is willing to deny her sexuality in order to remain in one. There is plenty of emotional distress in Disobedience—the camera stays close to the actors’ faces, in the manner of a horror film or a porno—but not enough character, and so not enough depth or tension.

Disobedience is Lelio’s first English-language film. The close-ups, and the all-male choirs who accompany the inevitable communal crisis, are oddly reminiscent of a spaghetti Western—a film about Mexicans, made by Italians, and shot in Spain. Lelio also wants to have his honey cake and eat it: to emphasize the differences of Orthodox life, but to assume that Orthodox Jews are the same as everyone else under the wigs and hats. So the details of Orthodox life are picked out, often with great subtlety—as Esti tries to calm herself by the kitchen sink, the light has the parched grays of a Vilhelm Hammershøi painting—but the strictures of Orthodox life seem not to have made any impression on the characters’ responses. It’s all very muted and frustrating, even when Weisz and McAdams are going at it like the clappers.

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