I think it’s important to say up front that I am not a religious person. I used to go to church when I was younger but around 10 years ago I stopped going. That’s all to say that when it comes to religious films, I don’t have a full understanding of the mindset of people practising religion. I can recognise a good film (e.g. Silence and First Reformed) but I don’t fully connect to the religious side of things. So when I saw a trailer for Apostasy when I went to see First Reformed last weekend, I was intrigued by it, even more so when I found out the director used to be a practising Jehovah’s Witness, so I decided to give this a watch on Curzon Home Cinema and was blown away by it. This is easily one of the best films of the year.
The film focuses on a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses living in Manchester, Mum Ivanna and her daughters Luisa and Alex. After Luisa gets pregnant, she gets disfellowshipped by the Elders and is essentially cut of from her mum and sister, bringing up questions regarding whether disfellowshipping is right and the stress is causes on families, along with internal debates within the characters over whether they feel that God loves them. The film does a brilliant job at showing the mindset of someone who is a Jehovah’s Witness, particularly through Alex. Most of the film is told from her point of view and hearing her internal prayers over what is happening, how she justifies cutting herself off from her sister, not even speaking to her when she needs to go and get stuff from home, is really powerful, heartbreaking stuff. It further shows the true dangers of the religion as Alex suffers from anemia and Jehovah’s Witnesses do not allow blood transfusions, and Alex got a blood transfusion when she was a baby. It’s created a sense of shame in Alex that no-one should have to deal with, especially someone as young as Alex (who turns 18 at the start of the film) and there’s this feeling of guilt within Alex throughout the film that is just heartbreaking to watch. Also heartbreaking is seen what Ivanna goes through during the film, trying to get Luisa back into the fold, there is a clear care that she has for her daughter, but it’s also clear that she’s been so indoctrinated into the ideals of the Jehovah’s Witnesses that her main thoughts are of her daughter being corrupted by evil, rather than someone who needs love and support. This is especially prominent in the third act but I won’t dare spoil a thing that happens there.
What mainly works about the film is the sense of anger that writer/director Daniel Kokotajlo brings to the film. As someone who used to be a Jehovah’s Witness, there is a feeling of authenticity that he brings to the film that other directors would not and he makes no bones about it, he shows the Jehovah’s Witnesses as a doomsday cult. There’s this feeling of indoctrination throughout the film, a feeling that means Ivanna and Alex can’t see Luisa as someone who needs emotional help, but as someone who’s being punished and who seems to deserve the punishment. There’s no real sense of a personal connection between any of the characters, they don’t allow themselves to truly have them so they don’t feel like they’re being sinful. Everything we hear about the characters’ beliefs on Armageddon just sound so insane, but there is a conviction to what they’re saying that makes you know they genuinely believe what they’re saying and the lengths some characters go to to ensure that their vision of the world and of people is enforced is truly horrific, even expecting children to die rather than be treated for serious medical conditions. We even see how disrespectful the characters are to the beliefs of others, firmly believing that only their way is correct, to the point that Alex is seen learning Urdu so she can convert Muslims to Jehovah’s Witnesses. What’s even more horrific is that the most insane, guilt inducing speeches and articles we see the characters experience in the film are based on real speeches and texts, and that just makes the events of the film more disturbing.
The performances are uniformly excellent. Siobhan Finneran as Ivanna is excellent, giving a really cold performance, emotionally disconnected from her daughters. There is a clear feeling of love there, but it’s also clear that her beliefs are front and centre and that if you don’t ascribe to those beliefs, then you deserve to be cut off. She shows the internal conflict she feels over those ideals brilliantly, all through incredibly subtle facial expressions. Molly Wright as Alex meanwhile is incredible as well, showing the feelings of guilt she has over having the blood transfusion and how her beliefs have started to overshadow anything, preventing her from truly making any connections. Even with her love interest in the film, their scenes are framed around religion and how that dominates everything. There are also great moments where we see her prayers to God played over the main scene, giving us a keen insight into her mind and showing how far into her indoctrination she’s gone. Sacha Parkinson as Luisa is, again, excellent, showing that she is terrified of what she’s going through, having no real idea on how she’s going to manage and needing the love and support from her mum and sister more than anything, but their beliefs don’t allow them to give Luisa the support she needs. The weight that Parkinson shows Luisa is feeling, particularly the feeling that she is being punished, is powerful, along with showing how suffocating being a Jehovah’s Witness is, preventing her from doing things that would make her a well rounded person and when she tries to rejoin, we see how her free will and independent thought is crushed out of her to make her someone who just spouts doctrine with no question. This questioning provides a great contrast between her and Ivanna, the scenes between Parkinson and Finneran being some of the best acted scenes of the year, the scenes in the third act in particular being outstanding pieces of acting. Robert Emms as a newly arrived Elder, Steven, is great, showing feelings that he has for Alex grow throughout the film and seeming like a nice enough person, until we see him deliver a sermon and see how manipulative he is in his role as an Elder, with there also being a creepy vibe to the scenes between him and Wright because of the age difference between the characters.
On a technical level, the muted colours of the film and how dark everything is, there not really being that much natural light, does a great job at showing the oppressive nature of the religion and how cold and emotionless the whole thing is, further highlighting the cruelty of Luisa’s treatment. The sound design meanwhile does a great job at highlighting the sermons and the doctrine of Jehovah’s Witnesses, showing how all encompassing it is and how it is ever present in the minds of practitioners. I also admire the editing and blocking of the film, having the practising Jehovah’s Witnesses stand around and interact with each other on a physical level that doesn’t feel natural and the cross cutting of scenes showing Alex in the same position but in one part interacting with others and the other praying is a well executed way to let us understand Alex’s mindset.
Overall, Apostasy is an emotionally brutal, powerful film with a clear sense of anger towards Jehovah’s Witnesses. The lack of emotion in the characters does a great job at serving the true emotional weight of the story, the writing and the performances doing an incredible job at believably conveying the mindset of a Jehovah’s Witness, which is something that could only be done by a former practitioner. Now, there are so many more incredible elements of the film that I want to go into, but doing so would spoil the film, and you need to go into this film knowing as little as possible so the emotional power of the film has the greatest impact. This is a true masterclass in understated film-making and it’s a film that I won’t forget any time soon.
My Rating: 5/5