Review. Apostasy: a test of faith and blood

Daniel Kokotajilo’s first feature-length film sensitively explores the intense and often tragic consequences of blind faith. Drawing from his own experiences of leaving the community of Jehovah’s Witnesses which brought him up, Kokotajilo encourages his audience to sympathise with Ivanna (Siobhan Finneran) and her daughters, Luisa (Sacha Parkinson) and Alex (Molly Wright), despite the preconceptions one may have of this particularly strict denomination of Christianity. Alex is the first character we encounter; she is a disciplined Jehovah’s Witness, propelled by an instilled religious guilt following a necessary blood transfusion she had at birth. We follow the daily lives of her and her family, which is continually mediated by an underlying tension between their religious practices and their wider involvement in secular society. These tensions manifest in Luisa’s commitments to her academic studies which conflict with religious meetings and her missionary work. When Luisa eventually reveals that she is pregnant and protests her mother’s wishes of involving the father in the congregation, Ivanna is uncompromising in her belief and ostracizes her daughter. Siobhan Finneran avoids interpreting Ivanna as simply a tyrannical mother; she adopts a stern disguise but bubbling underneath we see her fear of divine and social judgment. About halfway through the film, the perspective shifts from Alex to Ivanna and the audience is invited to sympathise with her actions, regardless of how cold they appear in the first half. Instead, we observe a woman who is lonely in her faith; the Elders of her congregation are a somewhat ominous patriarchal presence, overseeing and prohibiting social interactions between Ivanna and Luisa. The prolonged shots of Ivanna’s despair and grief are isolated within a humble domestic setting as she is forced to question her own faith in Jehovah and even apostasy appears tempting.

Kokotajilo uses voiceover to great effect. Reserved only for Ivanna and Alex, their soft narration, which takes the form of a reflexive affirmation of their beliefs in times of crisis or social turmoil, breaks through the muffled sounds of background conversation and noise, juxtaposed with the lived reality presented on screen. With the focus on the two characters most devoted to their faith, these moments are contextualised as interior conversations with God. Again, the audience is invited to view the most intimate workings of faith in practice. Yet, the film manages to avoid over-explaining the characters’ interior drives, opting for silent moments to communicate doubt; the ultimate test to one’s recognised frameworks of belief. At times you could mistake the film for a documentary. The camera peers through windows, travels with the characters through doorways and keeps its distance when observing their life outside the home.

This consistent realism is refreshing and is emphasised by his decision to omit any father figures from the film. Kokotajilo could have done what many other similar films do and add a domineering patriarch to shame the female characters deemed to have ‘transgressed’ the established order. Apostasy is more than that. It is a stunning examination of not just the power of faith, but its weakness to control the turbulence of maternal love.


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