NEWCOMER DANIEL KOKATAJILO’s slow, deliberate and thoughtful examination of religious intolerance is both engaging and intellectually stimulating. It’s just not particularly emotionally compelling. Though his characters – mainly a mother (There is no reference to the husband) and her two daughters – are nicely sketched, the – deliberately – understated arc of the storyline never offers the kind of punch you’d expect.
The story focuses on a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Oldham, north-west England. The oldest daughter, Luisa is the apostate: pregnant and rebelling at what she sees as the meaningless ideology of the “Witnesses” (“There’s nothing in the Bible,” she notes “that makes these laws…just old men who change their minds from time to time”). She has been disfellowshipped. The youngest, Alex is physically dying as a result of this meaningless ideology. Her health is failing and in dire need of blood transfusions (which are against God’s law). The mother, Ivanna, has been forbidden by the Elders to visit her oldest disfellowshipped daughter and, (later on) to even hold and lover her granddaughter.
These three have all made conscious choices. For the oldest, Luisa, despite the hardships she faces, it’s a choice for liberation against dogma and the directives of a group of -to her- heartless elders. For the youngest, it’s a choice for death based on the belief that death is just a stage to a better life, where there’s almost the childish belief that marriage awaits. For the mother, seemingly lobotomized by her ideology, (and perhaps the stand-in for all the Witnesses) it’s a life without her children.
Dogma has kidnapped all human and maternal sentiment.
All three actors are superb. Molly Wright (a few episodes of the TV series, Our Girl) is Alex, the youngest. She’s believably earnest, innocent and as far away from the rebellious spirit of her sister as its possible to be. We really hope for the best for her, but know all that is to come. Siobhan Finneran (the stern figure of the law in Happy Valley) exudes a curious mix of desperation and longing along with slack jawed almost imbecile docility. And as the rebel with a cause, Sacha Parkinson (Mr. Selfridge) also allows us to feel for a character that is both steely strong (It’s no easy task walking away from the Community you’ve been born into) and on the verge of emotional collapse.
Daniel (who also wrote the movie) who was a part of the faith and is himself now an apostate, lets the story and his characters lead the way without ever overtly tipping the scale in the direction of outrage. The Witnesses he shows us are ‘just’ like everyone else: they enjoy partying, they’re part of a strong community; there’s no hypocrisy to their beliefs. And there’s no doubt as to the insider veracity of the world he’s portraying.
The Witnesses are happy. So long as they do exactly as they’re told and so long as they keep the outside world of non-Witnesses at arm’s length.
But Daniel’s efforts to minimize over dramatizing what is inherently a deeply sad, deeply ‘dramatic’ story results in movie that, like the mother, often feels bloodless. He allows us to see the absurdities of a life lived through ideology… which of course opens the theme of the story way beyond an examination of religion to an insight into the way our secular ideologies are equally lobotomizing its faithful.
But perhaps, old loyalties persuaded him to pull his punches.
And this fine movie is all the poorer for it.
APOSTASY. Dir/Writer: Daniel Kokotajilo. With: Siobhan Finneran, Sacha Parkinson, Robert Evans, Molly Wright. Cinematographer: Adam Scarth