Head Orthodox rabbi Rav Krushka (Anton Lesser) stands on the altar of his London synagogue speaking about “the beasts of the flesh”. Then he collapses and dies. His estranged daughter Ronit (Rachel Weisz), a photographer living in New York, is informed of the news by her friend Esti (Rachel McAdams). She had an affair with her as a teenager.
Esti is now a teacher. She’s married to Ronit’s cousin Dovid Kuperman (Alessandro Nivola). He’s set to take over as head rabbi now that Rav has died.
Ronit left London under a cloud. Rav banished her after hearing about her fling with Esti. Ronit receives a chilly welcome from the community that disowned her when she comes home for the funeral.
She stays with Dovid and Esti. Dovid is awkward with her. He thinks she still has feelings for Esti. He fears she’ll draw her away from him. We sense the marriage isn’t happy despite his protestations to the contrary.
Ronit is shocked to learn her father left all his money to the synagogue in his will. Her name is also missing from his death notice. It isn’t long before she and Esti re-kindle their romance, the “beasts of the flesh” rising up within them.
Everyone is talking about the lesbian sex scene in this film, but there’s more to it than that. It’s also a story of banishment and reconciliation. Chilean director Sebastian Lelio has made a critique of patriarchal fundamentalism which is thought-provoking, though I found Dovid’s decision to renounce his rabbinical post out of character.
Lelio is also vague on the motif of the sheitel (wig-wearing) custom of the Jewish community. Esti has to observe this for marital formality but why does Ronit do so? Is it for mischief?
The film has lots of lingering silences, poignant stares. It often seems like something dramatic is going to happen but it rarely does. There’s less to these scenes than meets the eye.
The bleakness of the London winter underscores the cold world the film depicts. Everyone seems to be dressed in black – and repressing their emotions.
The issue of freedom is a major motif in it, the kind of freedom Ronit takes for granted in her New York life. We see little evidence of this. I thought it was conveyed better in Naomi Alderman’s novel of the same name.
Disobedience is a fuzzy film. Dovid’s ‘conversion’ to the liberal ethos is too instant to convince.
His commitment to his religion is deep; there’s no way he would give it up as suddenly as he does.
Sidney Lumet handled this theme much more realistically in A Stranger Among Us. Melanie Griffith failed to wean Eric Thal away from his religious convictions in that film.
Ronit’s posthumous reconciliation with her father is also too pat. Can alienation be patched up in seconds by the snapping of a camera lens? Hardly.