In Disobedience, Rachel Weisz plays the secular daughter of an Orthodox rabbi, returning for his memorial service after a prolonged estrangement that has bordered on exile.
The locals are not thrilled to see her.
"So," says a member of the congregation, eyeing her at shiva, "you came."
Ronit (Weisz) is so secular that she once had an affair with a congregant named Esti (Rachel McAdams), now – how's this for a coincidence – married to Ronit's childhood friend Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), also the late rabbi's former pupil, and the congregation's pick to replace him.
All this sounds like the plot of Tyler Perry's first movie for a Jewish audience, and yet the movie chooses to examine these titillations with the furrowed-brow sobriety of a Talmudic scholar.
Serious, loud music pounds away on the soundtrack as director Sebastion Lelio (A Fantastic Woman) shows the characters in isolation, lost in weighty thought, in scenes awash in icy hues. There are several tracking shots of an ostracized Ronit trudging ferociously down empty London streets, the camera retreating in front of her as if afraid it might get slapped.
Then there's trembling, reawakened Esti, staring meaningfully at Ronit, allowing their hands to brush when they stand next to each other, stealing a kiss under a broken streetlight that suddenly crackles to life like God's all-seeing eye. Poor Dovid stares anxiously at both of them, wondering when they will reconvene.
He's the only one who knows the secret that sent Ronit to New York to pursue her career as a photographer and to spare her father the embarrassment of having a wayward daughter so close at hand. Dovid feels the same pressure to be devout, to serve as a pious example to the community. He pleads this case to Esti, leading his dubious assertion that "we've always been honest with each other."
Given what we know of Esti's preferences, that requires an elastic definition of honesty. A more complex inquiry into the situation is hinted at, but does not materialize. A prologue invokes angels who are ruled by goodness, beasts that are governed by their passions, and mankind who are given free will.
What is free will to Esti?
Does it mean choosing to stay in a marriage to remain within a community that gives her life structure and meaning? Choosing to follow her heart, to the only person she's every truly loved? A little of both?
After a while this starts to feel like dithering, or the machinations of soap opera. There are last-second cellphone calls at the airport departure gate. A cab pulls away from the curb, and through the rear window we see a tearful pursuer. Somebody stares at the prepared remarks for a big public speech, then dramatically tosses them away.
The doggedly serious Disobedience might have been a more engaging movie if it had allowed itself to be governed by its own melodramatic passions.