Film Review: Apostasy proves a powerful and thought-provoking debut feature

editorial image

A meditation on faith and organised religion, Apostasy, the powerful debut feature from Daniel Kokotajlo, shows an enormous degree of restraint, writes Natalie Stendall.

Quiet and slow-burning, Apostasy focuses on a family whose inward search for love, God and spirituality conflicts with the teachings of their church.

“Blood is the life-force”, says Jehovah’s Witness Ivanna (Siobhan Finneran) in the film’s opening scenes. Her daughter, Alex (Molly Wright) was given a forced blood transfusion at birth against the wishes of the family and the church elders. It is a violation Alex spends her youth trying to overcome. But when her sister, Luisa (Sacha Parkinson), makes her own transgression and is dismissed from the church, it is Alex and Ivanna that try to bring her back to the faith.

In its acute study of faith and its thought-provoking use of bible quotations, Apostasy echoes Dietrich Brüggerman’s 2014 drama Stations Of The Cross.

In a deliberately pared-down style, both films explore the controlling aspect of organised religion and the desire to believe. A former Jehovah’s Witness himself, writer-director Kokotajlo imbues his drama with sincere emotional conflict, teasing out the contradictions in church teachings.

“Love can overcome obstacles,” says the teachings, while Ivanna is told to cut the unrepentant Luisa from her life. Finneran is magnificent here, conveying Ivanna’s confusion with nothing more than pained expressions in the silent rows of the congregation. Her quiet, private struggles bring forth a climax that’s exceptionally vivid and compelling.

Subtlety is evidently Kokotaljo’s forte. That conventional images of pure white beaches and palm trees - a reminder of God’s promise to restore paradise on Earth - pop up in the background of a nail bar suggests absurdity. Images like these ask their own questions of the audience, while the dialogue itself is delicately permeated with the hokey ways in which the characters connect with non-believers. It’s a consequence of their detachment.

Kokotajlo repeatedly films characters alone in the frame, the noticeable absence of a musical score underlining their solitary existence. When Alex and Ivanna talk directly to God, Apostasy drags us deep into a private and lonely struggle.

For all its criticism of the church, Apostasy remains sympathetic to its followers and their families. In Apostasy, Kokotajlo both embraces and shares with us the complex and private relationships we have with faith.