Welcome back to Movie Club Sungays! In this series, I have teamed up with the podcast Queerfully to review a queer movie every month. Make sure to follow Queerfully on Twitter so you can vote for which films we talk about next!And don’t miss Queerfully’s episode on Disobedience!
Disobedience is a romantic drama, directed by Sebastián Lelio, that premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2017. The film was later released in the US in the spring of 2018 (and in the UK later that fall), making nearly $3.5 million domestically (source). The film follows the estranged daughter of the Rav, Ronit, and her return to her the Orthodox Jewish community that she left years ago. She reconnects with childhood friend and lover, Esti, in the face of tragedy that summoned her back to North London. Gay activity ensues.
Disobedience is based on a novel of the same title by Namoi Alderman. The film holds status as a sapphic holy grail film, likely due to our two adored Rachels and the famous sex scene. Note that this film is available with an Amazon Prime subscription.
What the critics had to say
Generally, the critics seemed to love it. Disobedience received an 84% rotten tomatoes rating and a large number of beaming reviews that comment on the intersectionality between sexuality and religion, the moral implications there, and the astounding performances of the actresses. There were, of course, still a few negative reviews. One of which stated, “the emotional arc between Dovid and Esti is much more compelling [than between Ronit and Esti]” (source). Incredible that some people read the het story as more interesting. Could never be me.
I thought highlighting (yes, and categorizing) the women’s identities may be beneficial for viewer connection and worth pointing out the sad irony of it. As obviously indicated by the make-out session and unforgettable sex scene, both Ronit and Esti are queer, but let’s look to some headcanon labels.
Ronit’s sexual identity seems to adopt more of a fluid title, like bi or pan. At the beginning of the film, the audience sees Ronit having sex with a man in a bathroom. This likely happens in an attempt to feel something after bad news (her father’s death), but if she’s a lesbian, surely she could find a queer woman somewhere in New York City to fill the same void.
Esti, on the other hand, married a man (Dovid) and clearly fakes pleased moans while fashioning a bored expression in a scene that includes sex with her husband. Later on, the women ask each other if they have been with other women since being with each other, to which they both answer no. “Do you still only fancy women?” Ronit asks Esti. Esti smiles with a slight nod. Kids, we have a lesbian on our hands.
Why is this worth mentioning? First off, I like spotting the lesbians. Secondly, people with multiple-gender-attraction might like spotting those characters they relate to as well. However, what I found most interesting about this distinction between identities, is that that woman who could possibly adopt a happy life with a man is not the woman leading that life. It is, in fact, the lesbian stuck in an unhappy life in a heterosexual marriage, whereas the bisexual (or mga) woman left the community to live a more authentic life.
Obviously, neither woman should be forced to live an unhappy or inauthentic life, but I think it says a lot about how each woman values herself. Even though Ronit had the potential to marry a man and live happily, she valued herself and identity over the ostracization she faced with her community in the past. But Esti stayed, without the possibility of a happy, authentic marriage or life, and found fitting in with her faith more important.
Queer identities and Judaism
I contemplated writing this section because I’m not Jewish, nor do I have very close Jewish friends who’ve talked about their experiences or intersectional identities at lengths; however, I felt ignoring this extremely significant part of the story would be a huge disservice and dishonest discussion.
Esti and Ronit have a background in a very tight-knit Orthodox Jewish community. The presentation of their religion certainly delivers the assumption that the two identities in question—being queer and Jewish—cannot co-exist. The film makes this clear through Ronit’s departure for NYC after the community finds out about her relationship with Esti (despite the fact that after Esti, Ronit has not been with other women). Perhaps more notably, Esti gives up women with her marriage to Dovid in order to keep her faith.
The film emphasizes the role of freedom, choice, and free will, as Esti asks Dovid for her freedom and wants her child to have the option to choose its own lifestyle, whereas her birth into the Orthodox Jewish community did not grant her that freedom. By the end of the film, Dovid grants her this freedom, and Esti chooses to remain in the Jewish community despite Ronit’s suggestion that she come back to New York with her.
While the film finishes with somewhat of an open ending (in terms of Esti’s intentions and future plans), it hints at tying together these identities, although tragically. In a list-minute goodbye, Ronit asks Esti, “Will you tell me where you are?” Esti says that she will. This implies that, despite Esti’s decision to stay, they will meet again, and perhaps more importantly, that Esti found more of a medium between queerness and Judaism, thanks to Dovid’s grant of her freedom and her choice of finding space in her life for both pieces of herself.
I would really love to hear experiences from queer Jewish people and these interpretations of the film, the film’s ending, and this theme of intersectionality. What does your intersectional experience look like? How do you relate or differ from Ronit and Esti’s stories? Please feel free to share in the comments!
So, cheating as a plot device is a common tool in sapphic stories. A woman married to or dating a man falls in love with or develops feelings for another woman. Since this is such staple, it’s something we have to look at for Disobedience too.
AL&HL’s Movie Club Sungays commented on cheating for the analysis of Imagine Me & You, which didn’t even receive a whole lot of criticism (given that both characters expressed guilt at the action and attempted to right it) (I promise I’m not pro-cheating), but the cheating in Disobedience varies greatly from the typical lesbian trope. For one, Esti already knew she was gay, whereas a cheating storyline for sapphics often serves as “the gay realization” for the woman cheating on a partner. And yes, I do push a belief that says neither woman should feel guilty for cheating in this film.
This belief works under the assumption that Dovid, Esti’s husband, knowingly married a woman who was in love with another woman. While never explicitly stated that this is the case, the film hints at the whole of their community knowing about Esti and Ronit’s past relationship (via Ronit’s ostracization, people warning Dovid to keep his house in check, etc.), which implies Dovid’s knowledge of this as well. Dovid, eventually, gives Esti her freedom upon request towards the end of the film, but he also married a lesbian and supported a type of conversion therapy that expected sex from Esti every Friday. So yes, both Esti and Ronit are getting my seal of cheating approval.
The spit scene
I can’t talk about Disobedience without discussing the spit scene or the sex scene at large. You remember it, the close-ups of mouths agape in pleasure, hands on bodies, Esti in baby bird position, tongue encouraging Ronit’s droplets of saliva. A blissful three minutes in length. Love it or hate it, the spit scene is here to stay, and it contrasts strikingly against Esti’s sex scenes with her husband: less than a minute long, missionary position, eyes rolling out of boredom more so than anything else. Her moments with Dovid seep with complicity, fulfilling only an expectation. And although some may argue Esti plays more of a submissive role with Ronit (cut back to open-mouthed Esti, awaiting Ronit’s spit drips), she clearly acts upon desire in several moments, from initiating their reunion kiss to enthused reciprocation of their emotional and sexual relationship, despite the incongruity she often seems to find between her Jewish and sexual identities.
I first watched Disobedience without any knowledge of the plot, except for gay. My girlfriend and I watched it together, drunk, with our friend Steph, and laughed through the whole thing. Upon my first rewatch since that evening last year, it turns out the film is actually very sad. The ending is heart-wrenching, despite its optimistic hints at identity alignment for Esti. However, it’s definitely a new sapphic classic in my list and a refreshing look at intersectionality in the face of literally anything else besides Christian lesbians. Again, I invite Jewish LGBTQs to share their intersectional experiences in the comments! How did you feel about the portrayal of these identities in the film?