By Jessica Kiang | The Playlist
A piercingly humane and deeply moving glimpse into a community that for all its preaching and evangelizing remains largely a mystery to outsiders, Daniel Kokotajlo‘s debut film “Apostasy” insinuates us with sorrowful grace into the lives of a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses as they experience a series of challenges that amount to a familial Armageddon. A story told without condescension but astutely comprehending the cruelty of a faith that demands Abrahamic levels of sacrifice from its adherents, the picture is a remarkably assured and understated piece of filmmaking, showcasing not only a first-time director who has arrived fully-formed, but three exceptionally authentic performances from the women at its slow-breaking heart.
They are Ivanna (Siobhan Finneran), her elder daughter Luisa (Sacha Parkinson) and younger 18-year-old Alex (Molly Wright). All three are devout members of the Jehovah’s Witness community in a town in northern England, with the girls even learning Urdu in order to better communicate the doctrine of “The Truth” to the area’s Pakistani inhabitants. Their lives are outwardly ordinary: they live in a small, drably decorated, terraced house. Ivanna works in an office, Alex socializes with other young Witnesses and has a part-time gardening job, and Luisa attends university.
There is a marked contrast between the drizzly prosaic Englishness of their daily grind and the fire-and-brimstone nature of the belief system they all share, with its talk of demons, original sin and the forthcoming New System — the phrase used to describe the imminent paradise on Earth that will exist once Jehovah has destroyed the faithless. At times one can almost perceive the allure of such full-blooded beliefs, when ordinary life is so relatively colorless, an impression enhanced by DP Adam Scarth‘s delicate, low contrast photography. Exteriors are dully autumnal, and interiors usually painted in institutional neutrals; buff-colored walls undecorated with paintings or posters.
But Alex is not in robust health. The opening scene finds her talking to a well-meaning doctor about her anemia, and being reminding that the hospital “saved her life” as a baby by giving her a blood transfusion over the objections of her mother and her community’s elders. But to have someone else’s blood in her veins is a source of intense shame for the pious Alex. She even hero-worships the boys and girls who, unlike her, “died for Jehovah” by refusing medical intervention, and whose stories of sacrifice are enshrined in a special commemorative book. And so despite the doctor’s assurances of confidentiality, Alex immediately reports this conversation to Ivanna, whose cold-eyed reaction to the doctor’s warning that another transfusion might be necessary in the future is chillingly redolent of current faith vs science rhetoric: “She could die,” says the doctor. “That’s just your opinion” Ivanna replies.
It seems as though “Apostasy” is mostly going to be concerned with Alex’s coming-of-age within the confines of her faith, complete with chaste love interest in the form of a new Elder, Stephen (Robert Emms) who expresses an interest in her. But then Luisa, whose exposure to the outside world is greater and who has started to harbor doubts, announces that she is pregnant by an outsider who has no interest in coming to their meetings and converting. She is “dis-fellowshipped” and Ivanna and Alex are ordered to sever all but essential contact with her.
This and subsequent dramatic (though never melodramatic) events conspire to reshape the narrative of Kokotajlo’s film in unexpected directions, shifting the emphasis from Alex to Luisa and finally to Ivanna, with not a single false note struck between any of the actors. One particularly shocking development almost serves to subtly remind us that our own faith in cinematic narrative is as fundamental as that of a Jehovah’s Witness in the stories of the Bible, and just as much cold comfort when life fails to abide by those rules.
Kokotajlo keeps formal fireworks to a minimum, using the restrained palette, eloquently off-center framing and shallow-focus close-ups to root us in a tightly controlled naturalism. As a result a simple device, such as having Alex speak her prayers aloud while scenes play on around her, has a heightened effect: this is a world in which prayer is as tangible and real as conversation, just as articles of faith are taken as articles of fact.
The director is himself a former Jehovah’s Witness, and the film feels informed by both sadness and anger at an institution that can force such impossible choices on its believers. At a party three toddlers re-enact the Judgment of Solomon story in which the wise king threatens to divide a baby in half to determine who the real mother is. But this story does not end with a mother’s selfless love for her child seeing them reunited: here familial bonds are expected to take second place to one’s duty not just to the Almighty, but to the capricious decisions of the male Elders in interpreting His word.
In being the most rigidly indoctrinated of the three women, Ivanna eventually emerges as the film’s most tragic figure, because though all three experience some (hugely costly) measure of personal salvation, within the confines of the Kingdom Hall or by escaping it, it is the mother who makes the choice to continue living in the faith after it has taken so much from her, and after she has, at least on some level, begun to suspect The Truth may be a lie. In less skilled hands, we might despise her for her choices, but the small-scale, minor-key “Apostasy” is remarkable for gently baring its teeth in its critique of the strictures of Jehovah’s Witness dogma, but displaying nothing but the deepest compassion for those who try to live by it. [A-]