2018 Film Essays

The Journey of Evolution and Liberation in ‘Disobedience’


Themes of individual growth and liberation aren’t new to LGBTQ cinema, but not many films have intensively captured them like Sebastián Lelio’s Disobedience. Set in an Orthodox Jewish community in North London, the drama centers on the reigniting of Ronit (Rachel Weisz) and Esti’s (Rachel McAdams) forbidden romance. Along with Esti’s husband Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), the three childhood friends experience evolution and ideas of liberation in their own beautiful, unique way. Together, their distinct journeys demonstrate that gaining the freedom to be one’s true self is among the most essential aspects of living.

After being exiled from the community years earlier for her attraction to Esti, Ronit took off to New York. Cutting ties with an oppressive world allowed her to not only begin a new life, but also discover what it means to be liberated. When she returns to her former town after the death of her father — a respected rabbi — her unapologetic, rebellious nature acts as a disruption to the quiet, tense environment. Ronit’s outright confidence contrasts Esti’s long-embedded fear to take control of her life.

Esti’s journey might be the deepest and most compelling out of the trio. Overwhelmed by the restrictions of religion, she longs for liberation. In an attempt to “cure” Esti’s lesbianism, the rav convinced her to marry Dovid. Masking who she truly is while conforming to a life she doesn’t want has weighed her down, enough to make her mentally broken. A reunion with Ronit overcomes Esti with desire, and urges her to act on her feelings. She behaves in a certain way with Ronit, completely unlike her interactions with anyone else. Esti exhibits a revived and open aura; the epitome of liberation. Her desire acts as its own character, ready to disregard all inhibitions.

What draws Esti to Ronit is not merely their natural, mutual chemistry, as she also gains the ability to be herself while in her lover’s company. Esti’s ardent love for Ronit inspires her to be uninhibited, daring to escape the clutches of faith. Whether the two women are laughing together, kissing in an alley or making love in a hotel room, Esti discovers a way to let go. The overall quiet tone of Disobedience makes its central relationship louder with affection. Lelio’s artistic direction emphasizes the women’s facial expressions, accentuating the genuine desire that Weisz and McAdams easily bring to life. Even in muted moments with only the exchange of looks between lovers, a deeper illustration of romance is communicated.

Esti eventually attains the courage to fight for what she’s longed for: living on her own terms as her natural self. Her journey can relate to anyone who has feared coming out of the closet, and the inner turmoil that triggers it. Concealing one’s identity feels like being enclosed in a cage, and it’s not reassuring when others enforce that you belong in it. But the more an individual is constricted, the more inclined they are to assert themselves and escape oppression later on. After living a lie since she was young, Esti finally reaches her breaking point, letting those around her know that she’ll never be caged again. Like Esti, anyone who has grappled with their sexual identity can gain the courage to live their truth, and discover the uplifting essence of release.

Esti’s method of achieving emancipation is much different from Ronit. She was banished and forced to build a new life, becoming self-assured in turn, while Esti remained in the community and fought for her identity as time went on. Even if an individual chooses to run away from where they came from, the freedom to discover their true self is within reach.

As Esti grasps liberation, Dovid begins to reevaluate the world around him. Being the rav’s successor, Dovid is completely consumed by the duties and traditions of Orthodox Judaism. If someone has only experienced one strict way of living, it may be tough for them to fathom otherness, as anything against the grain is deemed unnatural in certain faiths and cultures. But rather than criticizing Esti, Dovid accepts her aspiration for release. In most lesbian films, women who experience same-sex attraction are typically condemned by male characters, making Dovid’s accepting nature extremely refreshing. Esti’s yearning for freedom causes him to not only question the choices in his life, but also what it means to be truly liberated. Discovering new ideas has the ability to change one’s world, making them more aware of the differences around them. But in Dovid’s case, what influences that awareness is not merely discovery, but the validity and existence of various ways to love.

The way Ronit, Esti and Dovid learn and grow from their experiences can inspire anyone who has ever wanted to challenge conformity. In their own manner, the three of them evolve against a background of entrenched, rigid beliefs — which requires an immense amount of bravery. Through its moving journey of evolution, truth and desire, Disobedience displays that liberation makes life richer, and that it’s necessary to feel truly alive.

Ciara Pitts (@CiaraNPitts) is a lesbian freelance writer with an obsession for film analysis and LGBTQ+ cinema. Her other interests include alternative music and endless rewatches of Thelma. She has previously written for AfterEllen and GO Magazine.


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