Blood Is the Life Force: Apostasy

This review first appeared on Filmotomy.com.

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With Apostasy, Daniel Kokotajlo takes the old adage of write what you know—and in this case direct what you know—to heart. Brought up as a Jehovah’s Witness, Kokotajlo’s faith steadily dwindled in his early adulthood. He cites art school, and the critical thinking that creative environments encourage, as a major contributor to his eventual disavowal.

Kokotajlo, via the script, lends that incredulity, and affinity for art, to Luisa (Sacha Parkinson). Luisa, in her late adolescence, has begun to question the stark world around her, and her dedication to her faith is thus weakening. When she mentions that she’s taking an evening art class, her mother Ivanna (Siobhan Finneran) protests, for that would directly conflict with meeting nights at the Hall. To Ivanna’s chagrin, this doesn’t seem to concern Luisa.

Ivanna’s second daughter Alex (Molly Wright), however, is much more devout. Alex is a part of the Hall’s Urdu congregation, meaning she goes door to door spreading Jehovah’s wisdom to local Urdu-speaking immigrants. She even takes Urdu courses in order to articulate her message more effectively.

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The faith imparts that only once everyone on Earth has heard the name Jehovah will a New System arrive. Under this New System, it’s foretold that a wrathful Jesus will return to destroy the world as we know it and wipe out non-Witnesses, including any Christians who do not embrace Jehovah. Once Jesus has done this, the world will be cleansed and the righteous will be resurrected, so as to take part in the paradise they helped create.

The resurrected are given near-identical bodies to the ones they had before, in tiptop health, complete with the believer’s original personality and memories unchanged. To Witnesses, there are no immortal souls, only the physical body and blood.

Blood is sacred. When Ivanna birthed Alex, Alex was severely anemic, so much so that the hospital had to perform an emergency transfusion. Despite Ivanna’s demands to let her own child die if the infant could not pull through on her own, the doctors forced foreign blood into Alex’s veins, consequently rendering her impure forever.

Now she must repent daily. Because although Alex was merely a newborn without agency in the matter, in the eyes of Jehovah, this is all somehow her fault. Even in circumstances of life or death, Witnesses are absolutely prohibited from receiving blood. They are, likewise, not allowed to give blood, either; they’re going to need it post-Armageddon.

So, as Alex flips through a magazine of obituaries for deceased children whose parents permitted
them to die of curable illnesses—because to treat would be to taint—a part of Alex wishes that she, too, were in that book, dead. And, in a twisted way, her mother kind of does as well. That’s made clear by the way Ivanna esteems these departed, martyred kids whose time on Earth was prematurely ended in exchange for a pure resurrection. Alex, soiled by the blood donation that saved her, will have a much harder time reaching paradise, if she’s even to be granted a rebirth at all.

Wright, due to her character’s nature, is tasked with bearing the weight of the film’s material, and she does so effortlessly. Devout to a fault, Alex attends every gathering. And when a medical professional recommends treatment for the anemia she still suffers from, Alex declines.

She’s rewarded for her selflessness with the rather insipid courtship of the Hall’s most youthful “Elder” (the 21-year-old Robert Emms). Though her blood may be unholy, she’s nonetheless being molded to be the female face of the patriarchal congregation.

But Alex becomes the least of Ivanna’s worries when Luisa reveals that she’s pregnant. To make things worse, Luisa refuses to persuade the father, a Muslim, to convert—and she will not wed him. For these offences, the Elders “disfellowship” her. In other words, Luisa is expelled and subsequently defamed by the only community she has ever known.

Ivanna is ashamed. Not only is her eldest daughter no longer allowed to be a Witness—damned to stay dead whenever paradise happens—but Ivanna and Alex are also almost entirely forbidden from communicating with her. Witnesses must place their love for Jehovah above any wrongdoer—even if it’s family—and that mean no contact with the shunned. To Ivanna’s gratitude, though, the Elders grant her peripheral contact, in hope that Luisa will return to the Hall seeking salvation and forgiveness.

In a subtly distressing scene, Alex answers the door to find that Luisa has come home to gather her belongings. When Luisa attempts to speak to her sister, Alex immediately averts her eyes and begs of Jehovah to have mercy on Luisa.

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Molly Wright, playing the good Witness, stands firm, while the scenario visibly rips her in half, as she insists upon denying her scene partner any direct communication, because it’s what the faith demands. And Luisa, recognizing that her sister’s loyalty lies with the organization, exits in anguish—Sacha Parkinson’s sense of outright rejection is downright painful to watch.

Ostracizing Luisa is no easier for Ivanna. Thankfully, the Elders let Ivanna have minimal contact, given Luisa’s condition, though they caution her to not abuse the privilege. And she, of course, inevitably does.

Siobhan Finneran skillfully juggles the double act of being a mother who cares deeply for her excommunicated child while also remaining a fervent Witness whose commitment to Jehovah somehow outweighs that of her isolated and pregnant daughter—because one’s pledge to Jehovah must always prevail over familial bonds. Finneran demonstrates a sharp and measured handling of Ivanna’s struggle to stay steadfast as her own progeny’s odds of surviving the ever-nearing doomsday grow bleaker.

Apostasy is extraordinarily performed. The trio of women leading it present a masterclass in understated ensemble acting. Behind the lens, Daniel Kokotajlo elevates his actors’ sincerity by conducting the material covertly—the direction is discrete and the camerawork is inconspicuous—as he allows Finneran, Parkinson, and Wright to be the focus from start to finish.

As the family drama unfolds, Kokotajlo’s thought-provoking debut boldly confronts the belief that blood is divine above all else—unless it’s the blood that runs through the veins of disavowed kin.

Brandon Stanwyck