Stern, tight-lipped mother and devoted Jehovah’s Witness Ivanna is raising her two teenage daughters within the strict, secular religion to which she has committed her life. Each daughter carries with them weighty doubts and when one sister falls away from the faith, Ivanna is faced with pressure to minimise contact with her in order to stay true to the God she serves. Apostasy is a mesmerising and deeply angering depiction of a woman’s anguish when torn between a maternal need to protect and a religious obligation to obey. Apostasy does not simply pass judgement on religion. It’s certainly a highly cynical piece of filmmaking, but it also takes a bold, stark look at the role and place of religion within an imperfect world. It’s largely concerned with the damage that can be done by black and white thinking in a world clouded by grey space and human messiness. It is only once such messiness crosses over into one’s own home that religion and faith are truly tested. Apostasy chooses to explore an extreme test of faith through the eyes of a mother, pushing the limits of one’s loyalties to two very separate parts of life. With its bleak and exposing portrayal of said religion, Apostasy could only have been written and directed by someone who had experienced life inside the Jehovah’s Witness community first hand. Director Daniel Kokotajlo knows life both before and after joining the organisation, having been brought into the lifestyle by his mother at the age of eight and eventually making his own decision to leave years later. Happy Valley’s Siobhan Finneran gives a career best performance in this effortless transition from television – where we’re used to seeing her – to film, where she’s less well known but equally captivating.
It’s incredibly powerful to finally see Finneran break out from her usual supporting roles into the forefront where her restrained performance becomes increasingly intense as Ivanna’s frustrations grow. Molly Wright’s feature debut, as youngest daughter Alex, is fragile and startling. Wright captures the naivety of a young person growing up within a religious household, ignorant due to her lack of inexperience, taking comfort and seeking quick answers in faith when the world doesn’t make sense. Alex is shy yet self-assured, a faint whiff of arrogance surrounds her, coming from her strong certainty in what she believes. Sacha Parkinson plays Luisa the eldest of the two sisters, in only her second feature appearance. She carries her character’s anguish on her face, her pain visible on the surface in perfect opposition to Finneran’s introverted emotional struggle. A lovely technique used by Kokotajlo is that of capturing prayer, visually but privately. Through prayer, we witness the women’s internal and most intimate emotional experiences; in these moments they are isolated, alone and at their most vulnerable. Moments in Apostasy were met with simmers of brief laughter from the audience, presumably a reaction to the absurdity of some of the film’s situations and Ivanna’s restrained responses to them. For me, there was no laughter to be had, just extreme, cinematic sorrow to be felt; the woe and tragedy undoubtedly brought on by the film’s raw performances and Kokotajlo’s delicate handling of such a controversial subject. It was a rare sorrow that started deep in my heart bubbling up until my eyes were brimming with big, inconsolable tears.
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