Love and faith are often at odds in queer films, and this strikes a cord because both are universal themes. Love in these cases is often forbidden, and many are critical of these kinds of films because they don’t provide the traditional happy-ever-after ending that straight romance films are afforded. While others do love a good forbidden romance drama, it’s also satisfying when these narratives end with queer characters overcoming whatever obstacles they face. Isolation, sadness, and trauma are common when “queer” and “religion” are side by side. They’re not ideal bedfellows, and it takes skill to navigate them with absolute truth. It’s an intersection that’s painted commonly with antagonism. However, more and more queer people are embracing themselves while holding on to their spirituality. It’s a complicated, nuanced process that’s highlighted in two films that present a perfect double feature for Pride Month.
When I recently watched You Can Live Forever (now on VOD), I couldn’t help but think of Sebastián Lelio’s 2018 film, Disobedience. The former follows two teens as they navigate their sexuality and relationship in a Jehovah’s Witness community, mirroring the story of an old flame reigniting in the latter’s romance set in an Orthodox Jewish community. They’re a perfect pairing because not only are queerness and religion foremost themes, but they are in sync in other aspects, like how grief propels them on their new journeys. In You Can Live Forever after the death of her father, Jaime (Anwen O’Driscoll) is sent back to the community she left as a child. There she meets Marike (June Laporte). In Disobedience, Ronit (Rachel Weisz) goes back to the home she left behind after hearing of the death of her rabbi father. There she is reunited with Esti (Rachel McAdams).
In both instances, Jaime and Ronit feel out of place in this environment upon their return. Jaime has the dilemma of wanting to be herself but also wanting to hide it. For Ronit, her sexuality is already known, and this is her first time back home since she was essentially cast out. The only moments where these characters feel comfortable are when they can be themselves with the person they love. However, the other halves of these romances, Marike and Esti, are more entrenched in their respective religions than their partners. In both films, navigating love is a delicate dance. They desperately follow each other’s steps in order to avoid detection. Of course, with this kind of narrative, it’s unavoidable. Conflict stirs up, highlighting how difficult it is for queer love to live in that space and also how difficult it is to leave that space.
What really struck me while watching both films was that they can act as a prequel and a sequel to each other. You Can Live Forever illuminates what the early stages of first love were like for Ronit and Esti: the anxiety, the confusion, the longing glances. These things move into adulthood as well, with Disobedience working the same way to show how Jaime and Marike’s relationship could evolve in adulthood. Marike carries the same unshaken belief in faith as Esti, but the latter also has the burden of being a woman of a certain age with an image to maintain and traditional gender roles to tick off a patriarchal scroll. However, in both cases, patience, no matter how unbearable and long, eventually leads to an emotional reunion. Their desire burns apart the invisible shackles that have tried to keep their love barred.
Both Naomi Alderman, the author of the book Disobedience, and You Can Live Forever director, Sarah Watts, have experienced what is presented on-screen. This creates a very affecting viewing experience because of how personal the stories become. They not only represent their creators but other queer people with similar experiences. Both Alderman and Watts have successfully left their respective faiths, marking the realization that the love story of Jaime and Marike, as well as Ronit and Esti, are full of hope to thrive in a world that often wishes to rip them apart. The endings to both stories aren’t traditionally happy ones but are truthful to the experience of living in a religious community. Ultimately, though, these characters accept the queer part of themselves and also realize that it can co-exist with their religious identity.
The word “disobedience” in both films means transgression, which is shown to be painful, but also rewarding. There’s an open-ended quality to how both stories conclude. You don’t know where the characters’ journeys will take them but it’s clear that the love between these two pairs is impossible even for their Gods to diminish. This is a reflection of what’s happening in the real world. Organized religions are dying as more and more young people (and young queer people) are opting for individualized forms of religious experience. Whether that’s through personal practice or seeking out spaces of worship with others who accept them wholly.
Many, if not all, religious institutions adhere to framing religion and non-normative sexuality as antagonists. But it’s becoming clearer, through various media and personal stories, that many religious traditions and texts are being read queerly, solidifying queer people’s right to exist in religious spaces. You Can Live Forever and Disobedience bring about more conversations on how queerness exists in religious institutions and whether religion and queerness can truly intersect harmoniously.
The tagline of Disobedience is, “Love is an act of defiance.” In both films, love is an act of defiance against archaic systems that are slowly evolving into something much more freeing.