The death of one’s last remaining parent can be impactful beyond one’s expectations. For most of us, it signals the end of the generation from which we learned who we were and that gave us our initial values. Some of us cling to those values without exception but most of us in our teens (Erik Erickson’s “Identity vs Role Confusion”) move to define our own belief systems and principles. So the death of the last of our preceding generation is always a sobering time. Did we make good choices as we became independent from our parents? Should we re-evaluate? What are we taking away from our parent’s lives? What codes do we believe are really important to our happiness? Were our parent’s ethos ones we will strive to adapt and pass on?
“Rav” — A Guiding Light, a Rabbi of Unsurpassed Wisdom
Disobedience, based on the award-winning 2006 Naomi Alderman novel of the same name, tells the story of Ronit Krushka. She was reared in the London suburb and Orthodox Jewish enclave of Hendon, England. Ronit is now an adult and long ago fled the strictures of her upbringing and her locally famous rabbi father, Rav Krushka. She lives the secular life of a New York professional photographer completely estranged from her one parent (her mother died of cancer when she was a toddler). The Rav had not communicated with her in many years, nor she with him or anyone else in Hendon.
The film opens as the increasingly weak Rav (he has “a shadow on his lung”) is giving his sermon on the Shabbat (the Jewish Sabbath). With his synagogue followers looking on, he remarks on God in his thin failing voice “What a great power the Almighty has given us. To speak, as He speaks. Astonishing! Of all the creatures on earth, only we can speak. What does this mean?” As he descends from the amud (Jewish lectern) he collapses and dies. In accordance with Jewish laws, the Rav is buried within the next 24 hours. Ronit quickly receives an unidentified phone call from Hendon and she decides to go back to London for the remainder of her father’s 7-day shiva (mourning) and his hesped (a formal service of eulogy).
“I Never Thought We’d See You Again.”
Upon her arrival, her cousin Dovid (played with just the right touch of humanity mixed with piety by an almost unrecognizable Alessandro Nivola) greets her with surprise. “We weren’t expecting you,” says Dovid, despite having a warm smile. Ronit reaches to touch his face in greeting and he subtly turns to the side, adhering to the practice of shomer negiah — forbidding the touching of adults of the opposite sex other than one’s spouse and very close family members. Ronit apologizes for “forgetting” making it clear she has long left behind such practices. And so Ronit awkwardly stumbles into the midst of a way of life she had long abandoned and almost forgotten.
What is left unsaid (but soon revealed) is the reason for Ronit’s departure. When Ronit was in high school there were rumors of her close friend Esti and Ronit indulging in forbidden intimacy. It was assumed that when Ronit left, the Rav had sent her away for (in the Rav’s and the conservative community’s eyes) such disgraceful and unfaithful behavior. Esti, Dovid, and Ronit had been a close triad throughout their teen years and Ronit was looking forward to seeing them both. But she did not know, until the moment she walked into the shiva, that Esti had eventually married Dovid. Esti is now the spouse of the person who everyone assumes will be the Synagogue’s next leader due to his many years of study under the Rav. She has been begrudgingly accepted by the Hendon community and, much to Ronit’s surprise (or horror?), she has become a quiet and dutiful wife to Dovid.
Ronit (played by the wonderful Rachel Weisz of The Constant Gardner, Denial and The Light Between Oceans) seems just right as a woman torn between unhappy memories of her childhood and her present secular life, having until now left her upbringing far behind. Esti, the other lead, is played by dimpled Rachel McAdams of Doctor Strange and Spotlight. When Esti takes off her sheitel (a Jewish wig worn to conform to the Orthodox belief that women are to not show their hair in public), McAdams is seen to have poorly trimmed, mousey brown hair — so different from her previous light-haired or blonde roles. But it turns out, much to Dovid’s surprise, she is not always a mouse. At a dinner where Ronit is interrogated by others (major contributors to Dovid’s shul) as to why she would give up her good Jewish surname (Krushka) for an anglicized professional name, McAdams (in Ronit’s defense) delivers Esti’s line “Women… women change their names every day. They take their husband’s name and their own history is gone. Don’t they?” The line impacts with the force of a sledgehammer to her father’s Jewish friends in the film as well as to the theater audience watching it. Later when the two women stand side by side silently nodding their heads to The Cure’s “Lovesong” from their teens, one can feel their deep connection. Both women play their parts beautifully.
The Orthodox Life
In the films I have seen about Orthodox Jews (to name the ones that come to mind — The Women’s Balcony, Ushpizin, The Wedding Plan, and of course, Fiddler on the Roof and the silly-but-fun Yentl) I am always impressed by the emphasis on the family and the honoring of traditions that have been passed down for generations. While to Gentiles their way of life may seem strange and their rules incomprehensible, I grew up among many Amish and worked for an Amish carpentry crew when I was in high school and college (they needed someone to drive for them). I came to admire them for their simple, uncluttered lives centered on their faith and their community. But I also saw that many of them followed their rigid precepts only because they were expected to do so and would otherwise be shunned — not because they really believed (or even understood) what was behind their required actions. Jewish communities, on the other hand, seem to have more of a sense of why they practice their customs and follow their religious laws, even if their interpretation of Old Testament prohibitions may seem contorted or antiquated to those not reared Orthodox.
I loved Alderman’s novel and its format, where each chapter begins with several pages explaining the traditions and beliefs of Orthodox Jews and, briefly, where those practices originate. The story that is told in the remaining pages of each of the chapters then dwell on some aspect of what was explained, which greatly enhanced the story. Unfortunately, the movie of Disobedience did not follow that format (nor would it make for a motion picture if it had). On several occasions, my wife whispered in my ear (such as when Ronit intentionally ripped her clothing upon hearing of her father’s death) “Why is she doing that?” or “What is the meaning of that?” The film, unfortunately, gives no answer.
Mostly About the Sex (?)
Chilean Sebastion Lelio, coming off writing the screenplay and directing last year’s A Fantastic Woman, which captured the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, has directing and writing credits (along with Alderman) for this film. It was clearly his decision to accentuate the sexual in the screenplay. I think it was a bad decision which cheapens the film. The advertising campaign for this film was surely aimed at the sensational and lurid — two relatively well-known actresses indulging in a lesbian love scene (yes, just one but it was interminable). The poster for the film shows the two leads kissing passionately with the unstated promise of more to come — and it does. The changes were unnecessary and prurient. There was no corresponding scene in the novel and it did not advance the story but rather made it tawdry. Whether the fault of the misplaced publicity campaign lies with Bleeker Street Media or one of the other credited production and distribution companies is unknown to me but it debases an otherwise thoughtful and meditative film.
In many ways I admire other decisions made by Lelio. The London photography seemed genuine. Many of the scenes were shot in modest homes with conservative décor. Scenes were filled with challah bread and tubes of matzo-meal. The Jewish synagogue (or shul) was plain and functional… not the ornate temple of worship I was expecting. Lelio’s use of mirrors was notably fascinating rather than distracting — speaking to me of how we reflect and are in turn reflected in the experience of others different than us. The long silences Lelio allows makes conversations seem real and often painful. His unwillingness to use flashbacks to explain Ronit’s early life (as did the novel) allowed the film to flow without confusion or interruption. I admired the quiet and moving ending of the film (a significant improvement from the unlikely ending in the novel). It is a shame that such good decisions were made less satisfying by his decision to add such explicit sexuality.
“We Try. We Try to Live a Good Life.”
In the end this film is flawed but worthwhile. It is about our failings as God’s creatures. It is about the decisions we make as we grow up and leave our childhood behind. A film about our relationships with our parents — in this case with our father and what he represents. In the second half of the film, Ronit is asked: “Do you know what you really want?” She answers “Yes, I want to know that my father loved me.”
In a passage from the novel (which to my memory is not exactly repeated in the film but is reflected in many scenes) Alderman writes about the Genesis creation:
“What is this thing, man-and-woman? It is a being with the power to disobey. Alone among all the creatures proceeding from the mouth of the Lord, human beings have freedom of will… Uniquely, we can listen to the commands of God, can understand them, yet can choose disobedience. It is this, and only this, which gives our obedience its value.”
How much value do we put on our obedience? I encourage those of you who have struggled with living differently than your parents (and who of us has not to some degree) and anyone who has left a former life behind, to watch this well-acted and overall beautiful film. It is about so much more than its ability to shock. Disobedience leaves an impression not easily forgotten.