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Apostasy review - a devastating trial of family versus faith

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Verdict: One of the best British films of the year 

Apostasy is a quietly shattering debut from writer/director Dan Kokotajlo, offering a revelatory insight into the lives of three Jehovah’s Witnesses from Manchester.

A rare cinematic perspective as is, yet rarer still are the inner components at play: the trio in question are a single mother and her two daughters, while Kokotajlo himself is a former Witness, relaying various memories from his devout upbringing into the film’s narrative. As such, the result is a bold and moving account of coming to terms with a contentious yet intimate part of one’s identity. 

We first meet Alex (Molly Wright), the younger of the sisters, praying to Jehovah for forgiveness. Though wide-eyed and quiet, she is unquestionably dedicated to her spirituality. When not at church meetings, she, her sister Luisa (Sacha Parkinson) and stony-eyed mother Ivanna (Siobhan Finneran) can be found handing out pamphlets on the streets of Oldham, or practising Urdu in order to spread the word to the local Muslim community. It is also revealed that Alex suffers from anaemia and is in need of a blood transfusion - something her religion strictly prohibits. An exasperated doctor tries to reason with Alex on the matter, but the devoted eighteen-year-old cannot be swayed. 

Meanwhile, much to Ivanna’s chagrin, Luisa has started going to art classes at the local college and socialising with students outside of her faith. This leads her to start asking questions, such as why the supposed date of Armageddon is always changing (it was previously believed to arrive in 1975). “It’s okay to have doubts,” Ivanna tells her. What isn’t okay, however, is Luisa falling pregnant, deciding to keep the baby and refusing to bring the father along to meetings, much less marry him at her mother’s insistence. The church disfellowships her, and the family is instructed to break contact until her official reinstatement.

Cinematographer Adam Scarth uses shots that are tight yet unobtrusive, emphasising the confusion, doubt, and emotional gravitas of the family’s struggle. Indeed, despite all the talk of the coming ‘paradise’, nobody actually seems happy (save for perhaps Steven, a young ‘elder’ of the church who begins an awkward courtship with Alex). The drab, muddy colour palette makes clear this is an environment devoid of genuine joy. 

Kokotajlo is certainly critical of the organisation, but just as empathetic towards those under its spell. Not once does he pander to secular audiences, instead opting to take his subject just as seriously as its followers. And while a crisis of faith is hardly a revolutionary theme, so rarely do we see it purely from the perspective of women. Patriarchal ideals subtly linger throughout (Steven grudgingly notes how Luisa “likes to voice her own opinions too much”), with the values of motherhood shelved in place of following regulations. Ivanna cannot eat with Luisa following her disfellowship, for instance, though she still insists on at least cooking for her child. 

With a shockingly cold ending that is sure to leave an ache in the stomach, Apostasy is a devastating trial of family versus faith in which neither side comes out the winner. 

Apostasy is in cinemas now.

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