Director: Daniel Kokotajlo
PG | 1h 35min | Drama | 27 July 2018 (UK)
I imagine I'm like most viewers of this new British indie film, in that I know little to nothing about Jehovah's Witnesses beyond the fact they seem to be picketed outside every train station offering up their bright green brochures, and they pop up earnestly outside my front door every so often to try to convert me. It is easy to both mock the devout in cinema, or present religious figures as dangerous, manipulative, and cynical. Apostasy, which focuses on the stresses in the relationship between devout teen Jehovah's sisters Alex and Luisa and their mother Ivanna, takes a very different approach; never monstering or laughing at its subjects but not shying away either from the hypocrisy and misogyny these women face in a life tightly structured and policed by tenets of a faith guarded by elder men. I knew nothing about the writer/director going in, but was not surprised later to find that such a thoughtfully-constructed and authentic-feeling film came from the mind of a former Jehovah's Witness; one Daniel Kokotajlo.
The Jehovah's Witness church that Ivanna has been taking Alex and Luisa to for years, absent a husband who is barely mentioned, sits beside a highway leading out of an unnamed northern city. The traffic roaring past this static and shabby-looking brick building seems symbolic of the cut-off nature of the existence this trio of women are living; as the world is moving faster and faster around them, they are trying with the faith of the devoted to stand still and shut it all out. Alex and Luisa's days are absent music, television or smartphones, their activities outside the home seems include only church sessions and door-to-door prosletysing. They even, awkwardly, spend an inordinate amount of time trying to convert local Muslims, once they have learned some amateur Arabic in night classes. This is all, of course, prep for the apocalypse that they have been told is coming by their mother and the Church elders (all men), when only the faithful will be spared by God. This faith in a post-death reward for all this toil is what younger Alex expresses, chirpily but with a straight-face, to the curious peers she occasionally comes into contact with. We get a sense in the first ten minutes or so of this film, that this is how things have been operating in this tight-knit family for years. But the remaining 80 minutes are an eloquent exploration of what can happen when fault lines start appearing in the superstructure of faith; when the guardians of faith force you to act against what you thought the ideals actually were or allowed, and when someone you love rejects the very faith that you taught them was more important than love.
Two intrusions into Ivanna's carefully ordered life disrupt her comfort blanket of faith. First, elder daughter Luisa starts to question the advice of the Elders following a transgressive pregnancy out of wedlock, which ultimately threatens her expulsion from the congregation. Luisa has spent her whole life in the faith, but her mother has, at least in her own mind, made a fatal 'mistake' in allowing her eldest to attend the local university, where she has tasted the real world. Luisa has also has access to the internet out of her mother's sight, where blogs and magazine features written by ex-JW's ,those who have seen endless 'apocalypse dates' sail past with the Jehovah's Witness elders simply altering the rules to fit, are plentiful. Ivanna's faith isn't designed to deal with questioning. The real world couldn't be kept out.
The second hammer blow to Ivanna is Alex's deterioration health-wise, the result of a severe anaemia condition, one that could easily be treated by transfusions except that the JW faith explicitly bans such pollution of the blood. Thus Ivanna has to watch her daughter waste away in the service of God (a fate the younger girl seems quietly to accept, which only makes the whole affair more startling), whilst her elder daughter's new found doubt only sees this as further abuse; physical pain now for mere guessed-at salvation later.
There is plenty of interest in seeing the machinations of the church in all this drama: the court of elders that Ivanna keeps consulting, and who order her to essentially shun her eldest daughter, the almost mechanical way younger church leader Steven (Robert Emms) goes about courting Alex given the rules everyone has to operate under, and the strange, anodyne parties JW families organise. But what really gives the film its punch are the performances of the thee female leads, in particular Siobhan Finneran as Ivanna. This is really Ivanna's story, and Finneran makes her an intriguingly ambiguous matriarch, one who in a less complex film might just simply set fire to her bible and run away by the midway point, once the dictates of the male elders as to how she should treat her daughters and live her life grated too much. Kokotajlo's script never gets close to taking Ivanna there, and it makes sense, 40-odd years saturated in a singular worldview means chains are hard to break. Yet as her youngest daughter approaches death and her eldest rejects the shame she is being ordered to feel, Finneran allows fleeting glimpses of what we might think of as the first hints of the terror of uncertainty to pass behind her eyes, as she begins to ask herself if faith is worth losing family. A superb performance in a gripping debut.