On the Fakeness of 'Disobedience'

How the Rachel McAdams and Rachel Weisz-led drama fails to pass its authenticity test.

Disobedience

How the Rachel McAdams and Rachel Weisz-led drama fails to pass its authenticity test.

Warning: The following contains spoilers for the film ‘Disobedience’

There’s a crucial scene toward the end of Sebastián Lelio’s Disobedience in which Rabbi Dovid Kuperman (Alessandro Nivola) backs his wife up into the kitchen wall and shouts in her face like a vilde chaya. It’s the first and only time we see Dovid lose his cool in the whole of Disobedience; the character is generally a sensitive, reasonable soul. The kitchen-set shouting match is meant to be quite scary in juxtaposition to Dovid’s otherwise calm demeanor: what will this man do now that he’s been pushed to the breaking point? The subtle threat of domestic violence is present throughout the scene.

I wasn’t scared, though, as I watched Dovid berate Rachel McAdams’s Esti Kuperman during an early press screening of Disobedience. No, I was focused instead on the giant tube of matzo-meal framed prominently just behind the fighting couple. In case you don’t know what matzo-meal is (it’s not likely that you have any reason to), it’s a bread-crumb substitute used by religious Jews in their Passover cooking. And a giant tube of the stuff just happens to be sitting on the Kuperman’s kitchen windowsill as they hash their problems out during the third act of Disobedience.

I half-tuned out the Kupermans’ argument as my mind wandered back about an hour to an earlier scene in the film, a scene wherein Dovid, Esti and Rachel Weisz’s Ronit Krushka have an awkward conversation in the Kuperman’s kitchen during the shiva for Ronit’s father. The earlier scene is similarly crucial; in it, Ronit discovers that Dovid and Esti, both of them key figures in her own past, are now married. And during that scene, I was similarly distracted, this time by the giant loaf of challah sitting on the kitchen countertop right behind Ronit.

There has never been a good Hollywood movie about contemporary Orthodox Jewry. From Holy Rollers to A Stranger Among Us to A Price Above Rubies to Fading Gigolo to… nope, I think that’s all of them, every attempt by a Hollywood studio to set a film in the Ultra-Orthodox world has been an embarrassing disaster. All of these films seek to exploit the perceived exoticism of the Orthodox community for the sake of lurid stories of sexuality and drug use; none of these films care to explore the Orthodox way of life in any real sense. The only good American movie about Orthodox Jews is last year’s Menashe, which was filmed secretly in Boro Park, New York on a microscopic budget before it was picked up for distribution by A24. Menashe is great not because it was made by an Orthodox Jew (it wasn’t—while its director is certainly a Jew, he is as secular as Sebastián Lelio himself), but because it takes an interest in the actual humanity of Orthodox Jews, and understands that one can explore themes of repression and isolation without leaning on tired, exploitative narratives about infidelity and illicit sexual behavior. 

Outside of Menashe, if you crave an authentic representation of Orthodox Jewish life, your only option is to explore the Israeli film industry’s impressive output (Rama Burshtein’s Fill the Void and The Wedding Plan are particularly recommendable, as are Gidi Dar’s Ushpizin and Joseph Cedar’s Footnote).

With Disobedience, Sebastián Lelio continues in the rich gentilic cinematic tradition of outsiders exploiting the Orthodox Jewish community to tell stories that aren’t really about the Orthodox community, or Jewish people, at all. Lelio’s co-writer is a Jew (Rebecca Lenkiewicz, who co-wrote the brilliant Polish film Ida back in 2013), which I imagine has inoculated him from some level of criticism (not that Disobedience was ever going to be anything but wholeheartedly applauded by the critical establishment after the success of last year’s far superior A Fantastic Woman). But being plainly Jewish and being familiar with the intricacies of Orthodox Judaism are two very different things. Regardless as to Lenkiewicz’s familiarity with Orthodox Judaism (or the familiarity of any number of Jewish consultants who surely worked on the film), a distinct fakeness radiates through every frame of Disobedience.

I, myself, grew up an Orthodox Jew, I left (escaped?) that community to pursue my own artistic endeavors. I am an ex-Orthodox Jew, I’m off-the-derech, as some of us like to be called. I can attest: there are some things that an off-the-derech person never forgets about his or her old community. One of them is the law of negiah, that a man and a woman must never touch one another unless they are married or immediate family members. No ex-Orthodox Jew would ever, in a million years, attempt to shake hands with an Orthodox Jew of the opposite sex. That the Ortho cannot reciprocate is ingrained to the point of reflex. Many Ex-Orthodox Jews find it difficult to be physical with the opposite sex at all.

And yet, the first thing that Ronit does when she returns to her Orthodox home in Disobedience is to go in for a hug with a religious man. The man recoils, and Ronit reacts apologetically. “I’m sorry, I forgot,” she says. Impossible, I say. 

If not for stilted behavior such as Ronit forgetting one of the most important tenets and social mores of her childhood faith, I might well have ignored the giant challah on the countertop or the giant matzo-meal on the windowsill. Instead, those props are representative of a larger problem, that Lelio and co. have zeroed-in on the wrong aspects of Orthodox Judaism and Ex-Orthodox Judaism in the construction of their movie. Rather than demonstrate the authenticity of his Jewish setting through incisive characters and complex psychologies, Lelio proves his Jewish bona fides by sloppily throwing a tube of matzo-meal on a windowsill. Rather than explore what it must really be like for an off-the-derech woman to return to her family, Lelio wrote and directed an entire movie about an unlikely lesbian romance and then cast Rachel McAdams (Rachel McAdams!) as a British Jew. Rachel McAdams!

Lelio’s interest in the Jewish community is transparently superficial. He wanted to make a movie about a lesbian affair in a repressed community that frowns on such behavior, and of the myriad communities that fit that description, he happened to choose this one. His characters purport to be Jewish, but his is not really a Jewish movie. The dialogue is stilted and unnatural due partly to the fact that Lelio does not allow his characters to speak in any language other than English for the majority of the film; things that an Orthodox Jew would say in Yiddish or Hebrew sound intrinsically tin-eared when said in English, doubly so when Rachel McAdams is the speaker. I have interacted with Orthodox Jews of every imaginable stripe in my lifetime, I have never ever heard one Orthodox Jew say to another, in English, “may you live a long life.” And yet, the characters of Disobedience are constantly saying “may you live a long life” to one another like they’re in the fucking Handmaid’s Tale.

Characters say “synagogue” where they should say “shul.” They say “wig” where they should say “sheitel.” They leave meals without saying the post-meal blessings, they say the wrong name of God in their prayers, and they respond disproportionately to various acts of titular disobedience on the part of Ronit and Esti. Hebrew blessings fall out of the mouths of Nivolo and McAdams like rocks, ideological arguments between Ronit and various members of the community are inane and cliche, an esteemed rabbi’s menorah has the wrong number of branches. Dovid—a highly-respected Orthodox Rabbi—wears a blue shirt to yeshiva. A Rabbi would never do such a thing: the Orthodox man’s unwavering uniform is a white shirt, black suit, black hat, and maybe a tie. He would be laughed out of the room by his own students.

Worse still are the scenes wherein Esti asks Dovid for “her freedom,” as if her freedom is something that Dovid holds and could simply give to her if he so chooses. Far be it for me to explain the infinitely complex Orthodox laws about marriage and divorce in this here essay, but suffice it to say I almost shouted “THAT’S NOT HOW IT WORKS!” at the screen on three separate occasions.

I wondered as I watched the movie, what my fellow critics were thinking. Was the fakeness of Disobedience even registering for them, or would their unfamiliarity with the depicted culture inoculate them from the film’s inherent dishonesty? The latter, it turned out, was closer to the truth. The critics I spoke with after the screening were shocked when I told them of its superficiality. As far as they knew, Orthodox Jews were going around saying “may you live a long life” to each other all the goddamn time. Everyone but me had loved the film, having nothing to distract them from what they saw as a well-acted film by the director of that Oscar-winning movie that everyone loved last year.

One the one hand, this response didn’t surprise me. On another, it did: the fakeness of Disobedience is not confined to its treatment of Orthodox Jewry. It extends to Rachel McAdams’s shockingly poor British accent, and even to the film’s shiny sex scenes. I am not, nor have I ever been, a lesbian, but I refuse to believe that real-life lesbian sex looks anything remotely like the wriggling, absurd, sensuously-shot stuff presented to us by Lelio. It’s a symptom of the same disease: with Disobedience, Lelio was never interested in telling a story about characters. This was merely a chance to show superficially Jewish women having forbidden sex in a hotel room.

But it seems that those who are unfamiliar with Orthodox Judaism are simply not going to be affected by the fakeness of Disobedience. On the one hand, that’s fine: there’s nothing really inherently wrong with exploitation; if what the people really want is a well-acted sorta-Jewish lesbian movie starring two beloved character actresses, I’m glad that the people have that now. It’s a shame, though, that those same people will go forward thinking that Orthodox Judaism is at all like what is presented in Disobedience. Because Lelio’s Orthodoxy is a strange simulacrum of real-world Orthodox Judaism.

There is one truthful moment in Disobedience. It comes late in the film. Ronit has decided that she must return to her new life in New York, as her presence back at home has caused an unnecessary rift in Esti and Dovid’s marriage. Distraught, Esti accuses Ronit of taking the easy way out. “It’s easier to leave, isn’t it?” she asks. “No, it isn’t,” Ronit replies, as she takes her suitcase and walks out the door.

Filmmaker and freelance critic. Member, Boston Online Film Critics Association. Find me on Twitter or at The Playlist. The best movie of 2017 was A GHOST STORY.