Saturday 21 July 2018

Apostasy (UK 2017: Dir Daniel Kokotajlo)

Apostasy offers Siobhan Finneran the opportunity for one of her finest performances to date, as a Jehovah's Witness single parent in the north west of England, raising two daughters within the faith. Finneran is superb as Ivanna, whose children Luisa and younger sister Alex have grown up following the strict tenets of the Witnesses - no observance of birthdays or Christmas, no television, in fact no embellishments to a life where salvation is awaited through a predicted second coming.

Alex, who is deeply religious, was ill as a baby and undertook a forced blood transfusion (another no no for the Witnesses - "Blood is the lifeforce"). She has had to live with the stigma of going against the group's moral precepts all her young life, despite remaining in poor health, and her wooing by rising Witness star Steven is almost inevitable. Luisa, more doubtful about her faith, chooses another path, becoming pregnant by an outsider (she is part of a team who witness in the predominantly Asian area of the town - the father is Indian). As a result she is forced to leave the Witnesses, breaking ties with Ivanna, whose first thought when she hears about the pregnancy, rather than her daughter's welfare, is that the unnamed dad needs to be brought to meetings. Things take a darker turn when Alex is suddenly taken ill at a party, and Ivanna's beliefs are tested to breaking point, torn between her roles as mother and her commitment to the Witnesses - and yes, they are mutually exclusive.

The depiction of .Jehovah's Witnesses on film is occasional to say the least. Outside of promotional material filmed by the movement and several documentaries, some of Apostasy's moral questions were aired in Basil Dearden's 1962 movie Life for Ruth, brave enough at the time, and a little seen 2007 short, Jehovah's Witness, dealt with a preacher's crisis of conscience. And that's about it.

Daniel Kokotajlo brings his own personal experience of apostasy to his first feature - he was a Jehovah's Witness who gave up his beliefs for a secular life - to make a very personal film which never hectors about the religion, despite it being portrayed as a very 'other' faith: demons being mentioned in casual conversation; an almost medieval sense of the Witnesses seeing themselves as fallen souls awaiting a better next life; and loudspeakers in the Kingdom Hall toilets so no one can miss the sermons.  Kokotajlo divides the scenes of suburban mundanity with quotes from the Bible - proof if we needed it that the belief system offers no chance for escape.

Apostasy is a very quiet movie, its contemplative tone mirroring the deep beliefs held by the congregation and the burden of faith carried by the elders, responsible for taking the key decisions about who's in and who's out of the gang - and a pregnant Luisa (superbly played by Sacha Coronation Street Parkinson) is certainly out. It's virtually music free too - there's drama enough without the need to accentuate events with a score.

Through all of this is Ivanna, stoic in her beliefs, even in the face of loss; her defiance of the elders to care for pregnant Luisa after leaving the family home is poignant and tragic - Ivanna insists they eat in separate rooms to demonstrate the limits of her involvement.

"No one knows how god will judge you," says Ivanna at one point, but most of the drama in this heartbreaking movie is the result of how the characters judge each other. It's a painful film, and a very personal one for the director, but which left the press screening audience with whom I saw it - a hardened bunch if ever there was one - very quiet and, yes, moved.

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