As many may remember from last year's "Call Me by Your Name," stories of gay first love, even when set amid luxuriant Italian sand and music, are not altogether upbeat. Still, that film's meek, tousle-haired novice and his raffish Romeo had a swell, unhurried summer in the sun before their liaison reached its expiration date.
In contrast, "Disobedience" feels like a heavy serving of spinach. It gives us the story of a brief encounter between former lesbian lovers in bleak fall London. More a religious melodrama than a romance, its focus is on the ebb and flow of social/spiritual power plays in the women's pious Hasidic neighborhood, which observes a strong prohibition against homosexuality.
There's nothing wrong with such a sober focus, but there's not much in it to enjoy.
That cold-shower tone is especially disappointing considering the talent involved. Rachel Weisz produced the project and shares top billing with Rachel McAdams. It's directed by Chile's Sebastián Lelio, who made this year's best foreign language Oscar winner, "A Fantastic Woman." It is a thematically similar story of prejudice against sexual minorities, but told in a brasher, bolder Latin tone.
Weisz plays Ronit, a Manhattan photographer who long ago moved from her native London. When she returns for her rabbi father's funeral, she's received with a sense of tension by the tight-knit community.
But she's graciously greeted by the synagogue's young rabbi, Dovid (Allesandro Nivola), an old friend. Dovid invites her to stay with him rather than in a hotel. Ronit can catch up with his wife, Esti (McAdams), her schoolyard best friend. What could go wrong? Ronit's speechless reaction to learning they are married suggests that a great deal could.
The doggedly linear film exposes its back stories bit by bit. We learn that Ronit moved to New York on bad terms, largely to part ways with her controlling father. A scholarly orthodox rabbi, he called the heavens for his own merciful death when he discovered Ronit in a homosexual affair. She is attending his funeral largely to give him her forgiveness.
As for her youthful friendship with Esti, that was meaningful in ways Dovid can't imagine. And it's not over. What will that mean for Dovid, who follows his religion's teachings, which condemn homosexual acts but not inner feelings? Or for dutiful Esti, who can't imagine resigning her teaching post at the Jewish day school.
So, we have two women who feel they don't really belong where life placed them and a man in crisis at the very moment he must prove that he has the strength to lead his congregation. On paper, it's so promising.
On the screen, though, it's cautious, staid work. A forbidden love plays best when it's infused with notes of excitement and addictive allure, a wayward sense of transgression. Disobedience, as the title puts it. Those sparks are missing here. There is fervent longing but even more reserved English composure, as if that deeply ingrained cultural dread of disgrace and embarrassment sealed a permanent lid on their emotions.
The story builds to an ambiguous conclusion about what resolution each of the characters can settle for, what rules they will follow, what personal hopes they won't ignore. Like spinach, it's nutritious but hardly irresistible.