"May You Live a Long Life."

(UK/USA, 115 min.)
Dir. Sebastián Lelio; Writ. Sebastián Lelio, Rebecca Lenkiewicz
Starring: Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams, Alessandro Nivola, Allan Cordunier
Sebastian Lelio Disobedience
Courtesy Mongrel Media
“May you live a long life.” One could possibly make a drinking game with how often this sentence appears in Disobedience. The saying is one of mourning, unique to Anglophone Jewish communities (according to the Internet) that carries different weights and meanings depending on the context and sincerity with which one says it. On the surface, it signals a celebration of life to someone who has lost a loved one.

Such is the context in which it first appears in Disobedience. Ronit (Rachel Weisz) returns home after many years when the death of her father, a leader in their Orthodox Jewish community, calls her back. She makes the exchange, coldly, with Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), a friend from childhood who became like a son to Ronit’s father in her absence. The exchange happens again when Esti (Rachel McAdams), Dovid’s wife—a big surprise to Ronit—offers the same condolence to her friend after seeing her for many years. She says it politely and formally, but more passion and sincerity overhead in the previous exchange.

This reminder to embrace life and get through the hard times strikes Ronit and Esti so strongly because they have a unique and controversial bond in their orthodox community. The women were lovers once upon a time and the discovery inspired Ronit’s father to disown her and make a pariah from the community. Such is the orthodox life: one of repression, tradition, and total control. There is no room for the individual to thrive. Life is just formality, ritual, and repetition. One can’t really call this way of life “life.”

When Ronit returns after many years of estrangement from the orthodox community after having established herself as a successful photographer in New York, she ignites clashes and confrontations with Dovid and the elders. The leaders require unquestioning groupthink for their conservation society to function. This is, after all, a lifestyle based on survival, but the rigidity of orthodoxy and the inherent misogyny of the community, which subordinates women to the role of caregivers and mothers—housekeepers and uteruses, really—evokes a bygone era. It saddens Ronit to see her old flame settle for a life of resigned unhappiness.

Ronit and Esti begin a careful seduction as they navigate the rituals of faith and mourning while respectfully laying to rest the late rabbi. The Rachels give some of the best work of their respective careers as the two women explore these conflicting emotions—faith, duty, and love—that are intimately linked with their identities. Weisz is outstanding as Ronit’s revisit to her father’s world of the Torah invites her to confront the beliefs he cherished. She sees a sadness in a life set to the letter of words written long ago, and the fullness of Weisz’s performance—the frothiness of her exchanges and the vibrancy with which she carries herself—push against the status quo she sees stifling her friend. Weisz is the only presence in the film who seems to have sniffed fresh air in some time.

McAdams, on the other hand, is masterfully restrained as Esti quietly awakens to the fact that she is a hostage in her own home and body. Her cautious glances and self-possessed smiles carefully hide her delight in Ronit’s presence, but subtly betray the fact that she has only known pleasure in the company of another woman. The chemistry between the two actresses is one of harmony and balance. There’s a rush of escape, a sense of coming up for air, when Ronit and Esti leave the community, even briefly.

These are bold, brave performance—not just for the steamy sex scenes between the actresses, which we inevitably had to mention, but for their vulnerability and confidence. Disobedience humorously earned the nickname Jew is the Warmest Color on the festival circuit as a nod to Abdellatif Kechiche's controversial Cannes winner Blue is the Warmest Color, which featured extended scenes of explicit girl on girl action, but Lelio's film is not one of unhinged, adolescent carnality. It's one of passionate, quiet restraint and exploration. An acceptance of love in this case requires a complete rift from family and community, and the stakes are high in the sexual tension between Ronit and Esti.

Nivola is also at his strongest playing Dovid with the calculated rigidity of a determined patriarch, but he gives layers to the performance as the character plays the role of hapless cuckold, creating opportunities to test his wife and tempt Ronit. The aspect of the life not fully lived is not unique to Esti.

Disobedience evokes the suffocation and suppressive character of the orthodox life through the muted art direction and the subdued lighting in the cinematography. Even the flat wigs that make the women indiscernible, sexless, matronly brunettes highlight the rigidity of the lifestyle when contrasted with the flowing buoyancy of Ronit’s well-coiffed mane. She owns her sexuality with pride and Weisz says more with a toss of the hair than most actresses do with a monologue. The ethereal music by Matthew Herbert is cautiously sensuous as it cycles through refrains of romantic longing and discovery.

Directed with sensitive restraint and respectfulness by Sebastián Lelio (whose transgender drama A Fantastic Woman won Chile the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film earlier this year), Disobedience is a captivating and sensuous exploration of awakening as faith and forbidden love are cosily intertwined. Disobedience approaches the orthodox community critically but also respectfully as Lelio meticulously ensures that all aspects of ritual and decorum are authentic. The film isn’t cynical in its outlook on faith—it instead questions the futile formalities that repress the faithful from enjoying a fuller and happier life in service of their communities.

Disobedience wouldn’t be the film it is without the role of ritual. The empty formality of neighbours offering Ronit wishes for a long life sounds respectfully robotic when it first arises. It sounds emptier the more people repeat it to Ronit even though they disapprove of her very existence as a lesbian who shamed their community.

Ronit and Esti make the exchange later in Disobedience when much else has been expressed intimately between them. The phrase is not uniquely one of condolences. Rather, it reminds the bereaved to live life to the fullest when the reality of death is so immediate. You only get one life, so make the most of it. By Disobedience’s end, this line is one of poignant, heartbreaking tragedy.

Disobedience is now playing in select theatres. It screens in Toronto at the Canada Square.