Using religion as a character diminishes the impact of Disobedience

There’s always something disconcerting about watching a film where the character’s religion appears to strip away their agency. There is obviously nothing inherently wrong with religion itself or creating a film where religion plays a role, but too often, religion appears to be the antagonist. It is not always the intention of writers, directors, and producers to portray religion this way, and sometimes it is. In the case of Disobedience, the intention is unclear.

Adapted from the novel of the same name, Disobedience follows Ronit (Rachel Weisz) as she returns home to London for the burial of her father, a powerful Orthodox Rabbi. She arrives at her cousin Dovid’s (Alessandro Nivola) house and discovers that her childhood friend Esti (Rachel McAdams) and her cousin are now married. Dovid, who is tapped to become the deceased Rabbi’s successor, treats Ronit warmly but also lets it be known that her being back in the community means Ronit must respect the Orthodox Jewish practices she has abandoned.

There is obvious tension between all three friends. Esti is tense because her teenage lover, Ronit, has returned. Ronit is tense because she is confused about how her former lover, a confessed lesbian, could be married to a man and be living an ultra-conservative Jewish life. And Dovid, well, Dovid is tense because he knows of Ronit and Esti’s past but he now also has to defend his decision to allow Ronit to stay in his house to other members of the Orthodox community. Very quickly, Ronit and Esti rediscover their passion for each other and act out on it, which causes complications for everyone involved.

Although it would be easy to judge the characters for their choices, there is no real villain in Disobedience. That said, the restrictions placed on everyone in the film all have the same source: Orthodox Judaism. At times, the role religion plays in this film appears to be the main character. For example, it is the reason Ronit left London, it’s the reason Etsi married a man instead of a woman, it is what Dovid uses to make almost all of his decisions. And yet, there are times, religion plays a minor role, as if it doesn’t matter, and this is the issue I have with this film.

While the film is well acted, and discusses an important aspect of leading a religious life, it just seems like the film cannot decide how they should portray religion. I guess that means the audience can decide for themselves but that can also be dangerous. Although some of the restrictions placed on everyone, especially the women, were a bit frustrating to watch, I did not “blame” religion. I feel that religion, especially an ultra-conservative religion is an individual’s choice and not one to necessarily judge. For a film that does everything it can to make all of the characters sympathetic and their actions justified, they did not do the same for religion. They used it as something that is “good” or “bad” when the plot deemed it fit.