Stephen David Miller

Startup cofounder, AI researcher, podcaster, person, etc.

Tribeca Review: Disobedience

After reading Naomi Alderman’s The Power, I expressed frustration with her tendency to lob compelling concepts into shallow waters. In that case, a premise full of possibility (women suddenly evolving physical dominance over men, and society changing as a result) collapsed into a collection of bullet points and inevitable conclusions. Politics: let’s flip the genders! Religion: let’s flip the genders! War: you get the picture. My uncharitable take was that it read like sociopolitical fanfiction.

So it’s hard not to wonder if my problem with Disobedience (2.5/5) is, in large part, a problem with Alderman’s source material. Having never read the book, I might be totally off the mark. But here, again, is a thought-provoking premise squandered by what appears to be a total lack of curiosity in probing it from any challenging angle. The unexpected death of her Rabbi father pulls Ronit (Rachel Weisz) back into the small, Orthodox community of her childhood. There, she crosses paths with Esti (Rachel McAdams), her (scandalous, at the time) lover of years past and present wife to the Rabbi’s successor (Alessandro Antine Nivola). Ronit’s return trudges up buried feelings in both women, and they struggle to reconcile then with the community writ large. Sci-fi grandeur is here scaled down to human particulars, but similar themes abound: sex as catalyst for liberation, women turning the tables on a repressive society, faith as simultaneous sickness and balm. More than enough fodder to say something meaningful.

And the film does say it. Sort of. Despite my negativity, Disobedience has its share of highlights to recommend it. Particularly with respect to the Judaism angle: Sebastián Lelio gives certain scenes ample space to breathe, imbuing the (myriad, unsubtitled) scenes of worship with a genuine sense of awe. You feel, in these moments, how the same orthopraxy might be beautiful or suffocating, mystical or impenetrable, depending on the observer. At its best, it reminded me of A Serious Man; which is to say, a wonderfully vague secular examination of belief.

The problem is, where A Serious Man reveled in questions, Disobedience always has the cadence of an answer. And the answer seems, frankly, bland. Characters turn their worldviews on a dime, with arcs that feel motivated solely by some Important Drama Bingo card: there will be love, it will be forbidden, someone will be angry, someone will forgive. Lacking proper grounding, the leads can’t help but come off as stilted; Nivola always either overly stubborn or overly understanding, McAdams always on the verge of some preordained epiphany. Even the romance between Ronit and Esti — which, hindsight notwithstanding, is certainly played as the film’s centerpiece — was oddly inert. Given the extreme authenticity of Lelio’s A Fantastic Woman, I’m surprised to be levying this particular criticism, but: it’s virtually impossible to forget that this was directed by a man, starring straight actresses, acting out a love more metaphorical than true. Sex scenes feel, if not male-gazey, at least off in a distinctly male way — vulnerability replaced with vigorous moaning and a few too many pints of saliva. All the problems of Blue Is The Warmest Color with none of its tenacity. Their romance feels like every other aspect of the story (faith, forgiveness, awakening). Like a conclusion so inevitable no one bothered to actually build to it.

The film opens in earnest this weekend, and given the overwhelmingly positive critical consensus, I may well be alone on this one. But I thought this was a huge step down for all parties involved. Chris and I argue about what works and what doesn’t in another late night Tribeca episode:

See my review on Letterboxd