'Disobedience' premieres at Toronto Film Festival

Film starring Rachel Weisz features a furtive lesbian romance in London’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish community.

Rachel McAdams (left) and Rachel Weisz are star-crossed lovers in ‘Disobedience.’ (photo credit: Courtesy)
Rachel McAdams (left) and Rachel Weisz are star-crossed lovers in ‘Disobedience.’
(photo credit: Courtesy)
One of the most buzzed-about films premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival this week is Disobedience, a tale set in the insular world of London’s Orthodox Jewish community.
The film, based on a 2007 novel by Naomi Alderman, had its world premiere at the festival on Sunday, and received much critical acclaim. Disobedience, adapted and directed by Sebastian Lelio, tells the story of Ronit (Rachel Weisz) and Esti (Rachel McAdams), two childhood friends who lose touch after Ronit leaves the faith behind and moves to Manhattan. But when Ronit’s father, the community’s rabbi, dies, she returns to London for the funeral, confronting friends and family she hasn’t seen for years.
But it’s Esti she’s most interested in, her long-lost friend who she is surprised to find has married her rabbi cousin, Dovid (Alessandro Nivola). Ronit and Esti, it turns out, were more than just friends as teenagers, and her return rekindles feelings that were long buried – and very much taboo in the community.
“It’s a very private community, so I didn’t know much about it,” said Weisz in a panel discussion of the film at the festival organized by Deadline. “You have to really be part of it or be invited into their homes.” Weisz said since her character has left the fold, she didn’t do much research, but McAdams and Nivola did. The pair, who play a married couple still much devoted to the community, had to “learn Hebrew, learn the prayers, learn the rituals,” Weisz, who also co-produced the film, told The Hollywood Reporter.
Nivola, in a video interview with the Los Angeles Times, said it wasn’t his first exposure to the insular ultra-Orthodox community.
“I live in Brooklyn, and there are certain pockets of Brooklyn which are almost exclusively Orthodox communities,” he said. “And to walk through those areas you really feel like you’re living in another planet.”
But, he added, his research for the film really exposed him to new views from the community.
“We were both [him and McAdams] invited into a lot of different families and they were very open with us,” he said.
The families they met were “intent upon their lifestyle and world being depicted in an accurate way, and not a cliched way or not in a way that didn’t get at the truth of what life was like in that community. And because of that there was almost an eagerness to bring us along and tell us how it is.”
Those meetings and discussions, Nivola said, “really exploded my preconceptions of what life was like in a haredi Orthodox community.”
The film is the English-language debut for Lelio, a native of Chile who is best known for his 2013 film Gloria.
Overall the film drew positive reviews for its portrayal of a closed community and the struggles within it.
Variety called it a “striking and warmly nuanced portrait of the kinds of women whose internal lives are rarely portrayed on screen,” noting a “Shabbat dinner scene that’s shot through with matzo- dry humor.”
A reviewer for the Los Angeles Times said that “both Rachels are superb here, and if Weisz is ultimately the story’s anchor, the grieving outsider whose perspective we share at every moment, then McAdams is its secret weapon.” He noted that Lelio is “exquisitely attentive, even generous, to the people and circumstances surrounding Ronit and Esti. He understands that desire and identity don’t take shape in a vacuum, and that while religion can be an instrument of oppression, it can also be a source of deep, abiding mystery.”
The Hollywood Reporter praised Lelio for not merely using the Orthodox community as a one-dimensional prop, but “instead demonstrat[ing] a persuasive respect for the people of Rav Kruschka’s temporarily orphaned flock.”
The film is slated to be released in the UK in May, and though the US distribution rights have been purchased a release date has not been announced.