The love Ronit and Esti feel for one another is the passionate, urgent, unbreakable, undeniable kind of love you experience once in a lifetime, if that.
When these two women reunite after many years apart, it’s only a matter of time before they abandon pretenses and risk life-shattering consequences, just so they can have one afternoon alone in a hotel room. The lovemaking that ensues goes from tentative and tender to a pure, unbridled, erotic and absolutely beautiful place.
Rachel Weisz plays Ronit and Rachel McAdams is Esti, and the two Rachels deliver heartbreakingly powerful performances in “Disobedience,” which takes the timeless and classic theme of forbidden love to the territory of really forbidden love.
“Disobedience” is the English-language debut of Sebastián Lelio, who became Chile’s first-ever Academy Award winner with his best foreign language film win for “A Fantastic Woman.” He’s dealing with risky and potentially offensive dramatic material here, and “Disobedience” comes across as a challenging but also deeply respectful and thoughtful meditation on traditions and mores that date back thousands of years.
We open on a scene featuring Rav Krushka (Anton Lesser), a beloved Orthodox Jewish rabbi in London giving a sermon on free will, which separates humankind from all of God’s other creations. (The topic is no accident, as we’ll see as the rest of the story unfolds.)
This will be Rav Krushka’s last sermon. He collapses and dies that day.
Cut to New York City, where Weisz’ Ronit has been living for the last decade or so, working as photographer who takes edgy, provocative photos of rebels and outcasts and outliers.
Ronit seems lost and troubled. She gets drunk in a bar and hooks up with a stranger in the bathroom. She goes ice skating by herself and looks profoundly lonely. She is an island in a city of millions.
And, it turns out, Ronit is the estranged daughter of Rav Krushka. Years ago, Ronit was shunned by the community because of her affair with Esti (McAdams). The obituary for her father says, “He left no children.” THAT’S how forgotten she is.
Nevertheless, Ronit returns to London at the invitation of her old friend, Dovid Kuperman (Alessandro Nivola), a rabbinical scholar married to …
Dovid and Esti are both teachers. Dovid’s yeshiva students discuss “Song of Songs,” which celebrates sexual intimacy. Esti’s English class is putting on a performance of “Othello,” with its plot about the killing of Desdemona, who was accused of adultery.
There’s some baggage in this marriage. Suffice to say Dovid and Esti are still dealing with Esti’s love for Ronit even if they don’t realize that’s the deal.
The elders criticize the understanding and compassionate Dovid for inviting Ronit into his home.
“Won’t [Esti] be distracted by Ronit’s return?” comes the query.
“Why should she be?” responds Dovid. “This is my house. I keep it in order.”
Yet in his heart of hearts, Dovid knows the connection between Esti and Ronit is so powerful it could be a true threat to his marriage. It’s something he doesn’t fully understand, but he’s no fool, and he didn’t welcome Ronit into his home without realizing where it might lead. More than anything else, he wants Esti to be happy — even if that means she’ll make a choice that will destroy him.
Such great work from Weisz and McAdams — and an equally stellar performance by Alessandro Nivola as Dovid, a good man torn between his lifelong devotion to the traditions of his faith, and his modern-day sensibilities and awareness of the here and now.
Bleecker Street Media presents a film directed by Sebastián Lelio and written by Lelio and Rebecca Lenkiewicz. Rated R (for some strong sexuality). Running time: 104 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.