Apostasy, a moving drama about the Christian sect Jehovah’s Witness, proved a highlight for me at this year’s LFF. Its an incredibly arresting debut feature by director/ writer Daniel Kokotajlo, who as an ex- witness member himself gives a very personal depiction of the religion through the story of a devout mother and her two teenage daughters. The film gives a seemingly authentic account of the workings of the faith; where innate motherly instincts are to be forsaken for the cause of religious redemption.
Single mother Ivanna (Siobhan Finneran) lives with her two daughters Luisa (Sacha Parkinson) and Alex (Molly Wright). The father is absent, the mention of him hints at severed ties. Ivanna is completely immersed in the religion and its local community; her life completely controlled by the elderly, the religion’s figureheads. Her faith is soon to be tested when her eldest, Luisa (Sasha Parkinson), becomes pregnant with a boy from college, an outsider. As one would expect she is excommunicated and even exiled from her own family home. An even bigger threat to Ivanna is her youngest Alex (Molly Wright), who falls ill from her anemia but as the religion prohibits blood transfusion, she refuses it and eventually dies.
This is a riveting and unforgiving portrayal. Kokotajlo bares all the sect’s flaws; the patriarchy, the level of control and manipulation it inflicts on its followers and the trickle-down effects played out in everyday family life. The friction between familial bonds and religious dogma begins to rear its ugly head as things start to unravel . Kokotajlo ramps up the tension and gives great depth to his characters through: realistic and sharp dialogue, emotionally raw acting, strong regional accent, the voicing of thoughts during prayer and the continuous close ups where wrinkles and frowns speak volumes.
Finneran is superb as the enduring Ivanna; her solemnness, her gloomy demeanour, her automatic bible referenced responses to life is simply spot on. Finneran’s facial expressions, her semi-permanent bewildered look shows the signs of exhaustion. She conveys with exceptional accuracy the inner turmoil from continually sabotaging herself from being a supportive and caring mother. At first you judge her as you assume it’s all happening by her own volition, but it’s the years of brainwashing at play here. As her daughters’ troubles descend upon her, she really can’t compute what’s going on; making her do the unthinkable; question her own belief. Parkinson’s spiky Luisa is praiseworthy; her role provides the only opposing voice; the situation she finds herself in gives her the option to reflect; her pregnancy in away provides her with a way out.
This is an impressive feature and as it’s a debut for Kokotajlo, it makes this even more remarkable. You can tell that this is a matter close to his heart made obvious with the high level of craftsmanship and meticulous attention to detail resulting in this exceptional and shocking output.
Words by Daniel Theophanous
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