'Disobedience' Shows Hollywood Still Doesn't Understand How To Tell A Lesbian Love Story

click to enlarge 'Disobedience' Shows Hollywood Still Doesn't Understand How To Tell A Lesbian Love Story
Courtesy of Bleecker Street
Based on Naomi Alderman's novel of the same name, Disobedience challenges the obdurate viewpoints of religion by presenting a stunning film in a world that is as dismal as it is beautiful.

Ronit (Rachel Weisz) has returned to her estranged home in Hendon upon hearing the news that her father (Anton Lesser), a highly respected Jewish Orthodox rabbi has passed away. Since leaving the Orthodox community, she has since started a life of photographing tattooed men, having casual sexual encounters and living well outside the restrictions of her family's faith.

It is on this return home that Ronit reunites with Esti (Rachel McAdams), her former lover who has since married the tight-laced Dovid (Alessandro Nivola). As to be expected, Esti is immediately conflicted and caught between the safety of Dovid's traditional values and the exciting, free-spirited whirlwind that comes with loving Ronit.

Director Sebastián Lelio is a remarkable talent. Before Disobedience, his Oscar award-winning film A Fantastic Woman was a triumphant look at the love between a man and a transwoman. Unfortunately, it seems as if he expired his capacity to present a compelling love story between a non-heteronormative couple with his previous masterpiece.

Disobedience is a gorgeous film with captivating cinematography, but the story unfortunately feels stuck in a very binary way of feeling. McAdams and Weisz deliver compelling performances, but the material wants Weisz to be an Orthodox version of a manic-pixie dream girl and McAdams to forever be torn between what's expected and what she desires.

The "forbidden love" between Ronit and Esti feels melodramatic, and the religious background feels like a cheap way to explain away the characters' repressed feelings. While the relationship between the two women is and should be the center of the film, the necessary conflict from Dovid feels a bit wasted.

Despite the film's nearly two-hour run time, Disobedience feels like there's something missing. The complexities of the Jewish Orthodox church and its feelings on homosexuality feel unexplored, and the severity of Esti and Ronit's relationship feel brushed over.

However, credit must be given to Lelio for directing a six-minute scene between Esti and Ronit that is one of the most authentic portrayals of lesbian intimacy ever presented on the silver screen. Never once does their exchange feel titillating or manufactured for the male gaze. Rather, it's an actual moment of lesbian sexuality that resembles the way lesbians actually have sex. For this, Disobedience earns its well-deserved praise.

The film is beautiful and will likely garner a fanbase of lesbian women looking for any sort of representation as well as appeal to heterosexual masses who are a sucker for any gay love story under the guise of "progressiveness," but Disobedience ultimately feels like its message is a nail being beaten by a hammer named "religion and sexuality are complicated."

With the success of films like Call Me By Your Name and Love, Simon, it seems as if filmmakers are finally homing in on the complexities and nuances of homosexual relationships between men. Unfortunately, with films like Carol and now Disobedience, it seems that lesbian relationships are still experiencing some growing pains.

Disobedience opens tomorrow at the Cedar Lee Theatre at 7 p.m. The Cedar Lee is located at 2163 Lee Road in Cleveland Heights.

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