This has been a year of cinematic introspection about the ultra-Orthodox Jewish world — and not everyone is happy about it.
A few months ago, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady delved into New York’s chasidic community with “One of Us,” a beautifully photographed documentary that focuses on three people who each sought to leave his or her group.
The film, first screened at the Toronto Film Festival in September, now can be seen on Netflix. In it, we first are introduced to Etty, a woman in the midst of an ugly divorce, who is seeking to break free from her traditional Jewish life while retaining custody of her children. Hers is a battle that appears impossible to win, as communal forces step in and mount a campaign against her, asking how the community possibly could allow the loss of any of its children. The filmmakers’ portrayal of Etty is sympathetic, and we are led to believe that this is a woman hoping to break free from some cult, in an effort to save her children. But is it so?
What Ewing and Grady make us consider is whether in today’s world, what happens here is appropriate and correct. Does a mother have any rights in determining the kind of future she wants for her child? The New York court weighed in, adjudicating in favor of the father and the community.
“One of Us” reflects a growing interest in the insular world of charedi Jewry, often perceived as exotic. This is not new to the cinema. The foreign, the different, the unknown, the forbidden — all often are seen as the ingredients for great cinema. The world of chasidim was the subject of narrative films like Sidney Lumet’s 1992 “A Stranger Among Us,” Boaz Yakin’s 1998 “A Price Above Rubies,” and Maxime Geroux’s 2014 Canadian film “Felix and Meira.” It is not surprising that in each of these three film narratives, one of the main characters is either seeking to break away from his or her Jewish world or flirting with that decision.
All of this is just a backdrop for the release of “Disobedience,” a film directed by Sebastian Lelio and based on Naomi Alderman’s book, just screened at the Tribeca Film Festival and now playing in local theaters.
Set in London’s Hendon neighborhood, the film begins with the venerated rav of a shul giving a drash about the divine nature of man’s free will, setting the stage for a key question raised in the film. Are there limits for choice? And just how great a role do halacha and community play in a person’s life? In the midst of his delivery, the rav falters and falls to the ground. Shortly thereafter, Ronit (Rachel Weisz), his estranged daughter who is living in New York, learns of her father’s death and returns to sit shiva in his house.
Most of the community greets her with mistrust and apprehension, but her childhood friend Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), the rav’s disciple, who has been groomed to take over as the community’s rabbi, welcomes her warmly. He invites her to stay with him and his wife, Esti (Rachel McAdams). Ronit, Dovid, and Esti grew up together, but years before Ronit had chosen to break free of the frum world of her childhood and leave for America, where she charted a new life. She now must confront what she left behind, what may have been lost, and the consequences of that loss, including the opportunity for a rapprochement and a proper goodbye to her father.
Ronit’s return is a difficult one, made even more difficult when she discovers that her father’s obituary says that he had no children.
“Disobedience” struggles with the very essence of community and choice. The film deals with the tension that you feel when struggling with the choice to stay true to the universe into which you are born. What happens when you perceive that world as inhibiting you and denying a core piece of who you are or want to be? What are the repercussions of breaking away and heading into the unknown? In “One of Us,” we learn that Etty will lose custody of her children and be completely ostracized, and that she will be forced to ponder her future, away from her family and friends, in a world of unknowns. In “Disobedience,” Ronit sought a new life in America, but has she found fulfillment for herself, her dreams, and her passions?
“Disobedience” also probes a different question, the question of relationships that are outside the perceived norms of traditional Judaism. In the world uncovered in the film and largely in the broader Orthodox Jewish universe, just how much allowance is made for sexual relationships outside of marriage between a man and a woman? What kind of sexuality does Orthodoxy allow and encourage? Director Lelio and screenwriter Rebecca Lenkiewicz give us a exceptional drama that pushes these questions.
The performances by Weisz and McAdams are masterful. McAdams in particular is deft at playing the rabbi’s wife, who loves both teaching and the man with whom she lives. Nivola makes us admire him as a warm, caring, and nurturing friend, husband, and rabbi. Each of the three struggles with the tension between wanting to belong and wanting to be free. Their struggle and choices are what makes this film so powerful.
This is a film that asks whether there is room for free will and disobedience in Jewish life and to what extent may that be permitted or even encouraged. The film is rated R for strong sexuality. It is strong, compelling and provocative.
Eric Goldman teaches cinema at Yeshiva University. He will speak on Sunday night, May 6, at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades about “Israeli Society Through the Lens of Cinema.”