An Ex-Orthodox Queer Reviews a Review of Disobedience

This weekend, I saw Disobedience twice. I have been looking forward to this movie ever since I saw the first clip of it, months ago. A story about two queer women, one who left the frum community and one who struggled to stay? Yes, please. Plus, Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams! And the costumes looked so authentic! And it seemed like it was done with such sensitivity! I hadn’t read the book (I still haven’t, though I plan to now). So I didn’t know much about the story other than that it deals with Ronit’s return to the frum community after her father’s death and with the two women’s forbidden love.

On Thursday, April 26, I attended the 7pm screening at Angelika Film Center. I was anxious, my stomach unexpectedly roiling as I sat in my seat and waited for the movie to start. I became more and more anxious as I looked around and saw kippa-wearing men and skirt-wearing women, as I heard Hebrew being spoken all around me. I was here for a liberating movie – titled Disobedience, for fuck’s sake! – and I felt the same claustrophobia and mounting scream inside me as I felt when I had to attend frum events.

I cried a fair few times during the movie, and I stayed in my seat and sobbed for a bit after the movie was over. I wasn’t crying over the queer parts. I was crying over Ronit’s relationship with her father.

I walked out of the movie in a bit of a daze. I texted some friends about it, but they hadn’t seen it yet and didn’t want spoilers. In an effort to keep the experience going, I decided to look for reviews and other information about the film. I found a review by Manohla Dargis in The New York Times, and I immediately became furious.

The title is “The Flesh Is Willing in ‘Disobedience’.” Wtf. Way to miss the point of the movie? (Also, really? You had to go to the New Testament to find a good title for a movie about ultra-Orthodox Jews?)

The content of the review is even worse. Now, Manohla Dargis is a respected movie critic. Her resume is quite extensive and impressive. And yet I feel perfectly comfortable saying – this review sounds like it was written by someone who does not understand film and storytelling.

Fired up, I decided to write my own review. I do have thoughts about the movie that go beyond Dargis’s points. But I’m going to start by quoting and reacting to some of her statements. If you want to just read my thoughts about the film more generally, wait for it – that’ll come in Part 2 ๐Ÿ˜‰

“In ‘Disobedience,’ the emotions are reserved, the palette muted, the rooms claustrophobic, the storytelling restrained.

True. So far so good.

It’s almost a surprise that Ronit (Rachel Weisz), a successful art photographer living in New York, can breathe, given how drained of oxygen this frustrating movie is.

Wait, what? Remove the word “frustrating,” and I would say this sentence hits it on the nose. The movie is (purposely, I would argue) drained of oxygen, because of the repressive environment of the frum community. And if Ronit seems unable to breathe – well, isn’t that the point? I can personally attest to the feeling of not being able to breathe, of gasping for air, when returning to frum environments. That Dargis felt that lack of oxygen and inability to breathe is proof of the film’s success, not of its failure.

It doesn’t seem especially airless at first, when Ronit is seen taking a portrait of a tattooed, bare-chested, much-older gent. They’re in a nice, roomy studio…

Exactly. It begins with openness and ease in Ronit’s whole persona, and that changes abruptly when she goes back to her childhood home. That’s the… whole point, Dargis. The whole point. You’ve just described a genius move of the movie, but your framing of it as a drawback is just so… not.

…and as he poses, she teasingly speaks to him about smiling, a nonchalant exchange that telegraphs some of this story’s larger concerns.

Okay, I disagree with this interpretation, but it is a valid one. I similarly disagree with Dargis’s interpretation of the beards on this tatted man and the rabbi as symbolic (in the following quote), but that’s a critical interpretation that’s at least valid.

Ronit lives in the modern age, in the here and now of groovy tattooed seniors, art photography and liberated women, but ‘Disobedience’ tracks her when she steps back in time after the death of her rabbi father (Anton Lesser), a revered religious figure in north London. Like Ronit’s portrait subject, the rabbi – seen early on delivering a sermon – is prodigiously bearded, though the other man’s body art underscores the divide separating these men and their realities. This in-between space is where Ronit now uneasily lives. She doesn’t cover her head and freely smokes, yet she also rends her clothes in mourning, ripping material with her teeth as the tears fall.

This is just… no. She does not live in the in-between, nor does she do it uneasily, at least not that we can see. Her life in NY, for all we know from the scene we’re shown, is completely separate from her previous life.

Why would she cover her head? Even if she were frum – she’s not married!

She smokes freely, yes – but in this moment it’s not an expression of her in-betweenness. Later in the film, the smoking becomes a motif that very much does carry symbolic weight, as Esti refuses a cigarette and then plucks Ronit’s lit cigarette from her hand to take a drag, charting her inner turmoil and re-blossoming disobedience. But here? It’s not a symbol of in-betweenness, just of living a secular, arty NY life.

And oh, dear lord, but way to take a really really poignant scene and reduce it to so little! She rips her shirt with her teeth, yes. It’s part of the rituals and rules surrounding mourning and grief. And her engagement with this practice is so powerful, not because she does it, but because of how long it takes her to do it, and what she does first.

The film cuts from Ronit in her studio being told she has a phone call to a close-up on her face as she walks along darkened streets. We’re left to infer that the phone call was about the man we just saw collapse and die in shul on the other side of the Atlantic. There’s no dialogue, just a quick series of shots:

Ronit walking along the night streets; Ronit dancing wildly to the pulsing music of a club; Ronit being fucked by a faceless man against the wall of the club’s bathroom, the pulsing music muted in the background – and she is being fucked, passively, as her expressionless face makes it clear she is not contributing much to the encounter other than her body; Ronit ice-skating in a rink, the camera following her face as the background music swells to fill the room and presumably her mind; Ronit sitting on a bench in the locker room, breathing deeply, exuding so much aching sadness that I began to cry before she did – and finally, Ronit grabbing her neckline, biting it, tearing it with teeth and hands, leaving her collarbone exposed and collapsing in utter exhaustion against the wall as her eyes well up with tears.

This is a brilliantly directed and acted sequence. Ronit has just found out that her father, whom she has not spoken to in years, is dead. She knows how to grieve according to Jewish rules, but she resists that and tries to deal with the overwhelming grief by drowning it in drink, dance, music, sex, the meditative rhythms of ice-skating – and none of it works.

Finally, she tears her shirt according to Jewish law – and cries.

Maybe I’m projecting, but those tears seem to me a result of both grief at her father’s death and pain at the limbo she finds herself in. That is the in-betweenness, that is the achingly painful part. Not the actions of smoking-and-tearing-clothes. But the feeling of wanting to alleviate grief, the need to deal with it somehow, the realization that the only way the grief might be alleviated is by following customs she has rejected, and the recognition that those customs will no longer work for her the way they would have if she had never left. She can find comfort in these rituals, but without the profound belief that they are divinely commanded, they are empty, hollow gestures.

Reising kriah was her last resort, and it enabled an emotional release despite her lack of belief in it. That is the in-betweenness.

Based on the novel of the same title by Naomi Alderman, ‘Disobedience’ delicately and far too bloodlessly charts the intricacies of Ronit’s return to a tight religious community that no longer wholly welcomes her.

Oh, sweetie pie. Bloodlessness is what allows a rigid community like that to survive. Emotions held in check, careful careful, don’t let them see, don’t let yourself see – the film’s bloodlessness perfectly matches the actual experience Ronit has as she returns to a tight religious community.

Besides, the entire movie is not bloodless. One of the most amazing things about the movie is the way the characters, especially Esti, become far less inhibited and rigid as the movie progresses. The movie brilliantly balances muted silence of sound, colors, body language, with bright vividness – to amazing effect.

One who does, though hesitantly, is Dovid (a very good Alessandro Nivola), a once-close comrade who is her father’s probable successor. Ronit also resumes her relationship with a former lover, Esti (Rachel McAdams), Dovid’s wife. The women’s reunion rapidly rekindles a passion that – with stolen kisses and progressively steamier intimacy – disturbs this world’s scrupulous order, a disruption that is more about hidebound tradition than about religious belief.

A mostly good summary of the plot. But that bit about the disruption being more about “hidebound tradition than about religious belief” – let’s keep that in mind and I’ll come back to that in a minute.

The director Sebastian Lelio should have been a good fit for this story if only because of the sensitivity he’s brought to female-driven movies like ‘Gloria.’ Although ‘Disobedience’ seems to offer him similar material – female desire up against the patriarchy – it defeats him.

Let’s just be clear here: the “female desire” of the film need not have been lesbian desire. Ronit could have been a man, and the story wouldn’t have changed very much. If Esti and “Rafi” had explored their hetero-sexuality with each other before marriage and been found out, the rav would have been horrified as well – perhaps a different kind of horrified, but still. “Rafi” may have left while Esti stayed and married someone else. With “Rafi’s” return, an old love between “Rafi” and Esti is rekindled, and Esti engages in extra-marital hetero-sex, and the storyline changes not all that much.

Yes, this is a wonderful queer story. But that’s not what it is mainly about. It is, as Dargis says, about “female desire up against the patriarchy.” But as to why it defeats Lelio:

He handles the story’s cloistered confines with visual intelligence, finding beauty in austerity though to an aestheticizing fault, as when Ronit walks amid a procession of mourners in which everyone seems arranged by height. The problem isn’t the scene, which is gracefully shot and staged. It’s that you notice the visual design but have no sense of – or feeling for – the faith binding these mourners.

First of all, I paid careful attention to this scene the second time I watched the movie, after I had read this review. That procession is not at all arranged by height… Dargis must have misremembered it? I don’t know. All I know is – that scene looks aesthetically exactly like small processions through the streets of Boro Park or Midwood or Williamsburg might look (except for the mixing of men and women). I didn’t notice the visual design of it, and I think Dargis was projecting some of her own biases onto her perception of that scene.

As to the lack of feeling for the faith binding these mourners – that’s because faith is not what binds them!

Remember how Dargis said earlier that the disruption is more about “hidebound tradition than about religious belief”? She seems to have forgotten her excellent point here – this procession is not about belief or faith. It’s about adherence to ritual and custom. And hoo boy, do we get a sense of that in this scene!

That puts a heavy burden on Ms. McAdams, who with some cursory lines of dialogue, a lot of brooding dark looks and some behind-doors weeping needs to make a persuasive case for why Esti stayed in this world and with her husband. Ms. McAdams, who lets you see the eddies of emotion rippling over Esti’s face as she pulls off her wig, does some lovely work here to convey a woman agonizing over her existential situation.

I categorically disagree with the first part of this analysis.

She does not have “cursory lines of dialogue.” She has some of the most powerful lines of dialogue in the film. In the scene embedded in Dargis’s review, as Esti and Ronit walk together, you can even see how Lelio highlights one of her most anguished and poignant lines of dialogue: Ronit questions Esti about her life, and asks her “what about you?” Esti’s vehement response, “That is me!” is amazing. Lelio explains why he chose to cut to a close-up on Rachel McAdams then. Here’s my take on and reaction to that line:

Esti is expressing an internal struggle so beautifully, so painfully. She may not tell us why she stayed in this world, but as someone who stayed in that world far too long, I fully understood why Esti did as well.

On my second viewing, on Friday evening after I had read this review, I paid attention to whether the film lets the audience see this, or if I was just projecting my own experience onto Esti. I think the former, to some degree.

The film doesn’t hit us over the head with “here’s why she stayed.” I don’t think Esti is even meant to understand why she stayed.

And I don’t think the film wants to give us a tidy explanation for why Esti stayed. This is a complex, painful, multi-layered situation, and the film does a beautiful job of portraying that complete confusion, that lack of self-awareness, that repression of self-awareness in order to stay with the familiar.

Esti was heartbroken when Ronit left, after all. The movie never tells us how old they were, but one assumes they were seventeen or eighteen. And Esti did have a support system of sorts in the rav, who advised her to marry Dovid. It sounds like she didn’t believe what the rav did, that marriage would “cure” her, but I really don’t think that the movie needs to explicitly show or explain that staying with what’s comfortable and familiar is often the default.

Later in the film, as Ronit leaves to catch a flight, Esti says, “It’s always easier to leave, isn’t it?” That, combined with an earlier statement to Ronit about how she profoundly believes, and how the word of Hashem is her life, should be enough for the viewer to understand the intense internal struggle that led to Esti’s choice to stay.

The movie never tells us why Ronit left, either. I find it interesting that Dargis wants an explanation for why Esti stayed, but doesn’t ask the same of Ronit. All we know of Ronit’s departure is that her father caught her and Esti engaging in sexual activity, and Ronit abruptly left. Why did she cut off ties with Esti and Dovid, if they were so close? Why didn’t she take Esti with her? Or rather, why didn’t Ronit and Esti leave together? Dargis seems wholly unconcerned with these questions, focusing instead on one that is in fact answered in the film.

Yet even as she and the filmmakers – Mr. Lelio shares script credit with Rebecca Lenkiewicz – thicken the texture, adding realistic details that should energize the scenes, the movie insistently puts a secular frame around its story, leaving little room for the metaphysical.

What?? Secular?? Metaphysical?? Hang on, hang on…

Part of what makes Ms. McAdams and Ms. Weisz such appealing performers is how persuasively they convey the inner lives of the characters they play, which makes it easy to put yourself on their side. Yet ‘Disobedience’ is so emphatically on Ronit’s side from the get go that the character has no mystery, which in turn robs the audience of the very possibility of discovery or surprise. Ronit is an uncomplicated exile from patriarchy, and demonstrably ill at ease among the Orthodox. In this, she clearly serves as a proxy for the secular viewer, who in ‘Disobedience’ is invited to intimately witness the agony of faith but not its potentially more unfamiliar, more discomfiting ecstasy.

Okay, okay, so much wrong with this paragraph. Let’s start with the end and go backwards:

  1. Yes, indeed, this movie is about the agony of faith. It is not about the ecstasy. If you want to see a movie about the ecstasy of faith, that’s fine – but go see a different movie. That’s just not what this movie is about. It’s like watching Spotlight and saying “this movie doesn’t show how amazing a priest’s mentorship of young boys could be.” Well, no, because this movie is about how priests groom and then rape young boys…
  2. That Ronit serves as a proxy for the secular viewer is not a bad point. But there does need to be an entry point for viewers who do not understand the ultra-Orthodox world, after all. And having someone who left come back after years away is an excellent way of doing that – of having a focal character who knows the world and can therefore move in it semi-effectively, but to whom everything is strange – as strange as it is to the secular audience. At the same time, the non-secular audience and newly-secular audience (eg: moi) gets a different understanding of the film as we experience it through Ronit. Because we more viscerally understand the pain, the wild discomfort of being back in this community. It is a good thing that Ronit serves as a proxy, as a focal character, for the audience to experience this world. (Incidentally, in the Q&A with Rachel Wiesz, Alessandro Nivola, and Naomi Alderman that I attended on Friday night, Rachel and Naomi talked about how the book is written from Ronit’s point of view, and how that affects the way the story is told in the film.)
  3. Yes, the movie is emphatically on Ronit’s side against the oppressive frum patriarchy. Again, if Dargis wanted a movie that gives voice to both sides, she should have known that this is not the movie for it. This movie tells a story – obviously not the one Dargis wanted. Besides, Rachel Weisz does a wonderful job of showing us her interiority, and I found myself surprised and delighted by revelations of her character at times (most notably at the Friday night shabbos meal when she can no longer restrain herself and gets all snarky at the rebetzin – you go, girl!)

Okay, so that’s it for my “critique” of Manohla Dargis’s abysmal review. Next post will have some of my own thoughts, independent of this crap.

3 thoughts on “An Ex-Orthodox Queer Reviews a Review of Disobedience

  1. > Letโ€™s just be clear here: the โ€œfemale desireโ€ of the film need not have been lesbian desire. Ronit could have been a man, and the story wouldnโ€™t have changed very much. If Esti and โ€œRafiโ€ had explored their hetero-sexuality with each other before marriage and been found out, the rav would have been horrified as well โ€“ perhaps a different kind of horrified, but still.

    That might have been more realistic. A review I read said that the three leads had been friends as teenagers. A guy and two girls being friends is not plausible in an UO community. But two guys who were friends, a girl who had rebelliously dated one of them, and ended up marrying the otherโ€ฆ that happens.

    > I find it interesting that Dargis wants an explanation for why Esti stayed, but doesnโ€™t ask the same of Ronit.

    Perhaps because for a general audience, Ronit leaving seems like the “normal” thing to do? While staying in the “strange” community, especially as someone who doesn’t fit, needs justification.

    Like

    1. Re: your first point – yes, the close friendship between genders seems unrealistic. I haven’t read the book yet (Naomi Alderman grew up frum in Golders Green) so I’m not sure how much of that close close friendship was in the book.

      As to Dargis / the general audience not questioning: I know! It’s so weird, though, that Dargis dislikes (what she perceives as) the movie’s pandering to secular audiences, and then fails to realize that her own reaction is very much from a “secular audience” point of view!

      Like

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