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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

Apostasy movie review: witness to the oppression of religion

Apostasy green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…
A scathing critique of inhumanity in the name of religion — in this case, Jehovah’s Witnesses — made all the more chilling by its drab colorlessness and mute suffocation.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): desperate for movies about women; no fan of religion
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
male director, male screenwriter, female protagonist
(learn more about this)

What happens when religious faith bumps up against family love and loyalty? Nothing pretty, in British filmmaker Dan Kokotajlo’s quietly chilling feature debut. A former Jehovah Witness, Kokotajlo knows the world he is exploring in Apostasy, all apocalyptic visions of salvation for only a chosen few, and stubborn adherence to dogma in an attempt to ensure one is among God’s favorites. And he depicts this with an underlit colorlessness and a mute suffocation that is as oppressive as the lives of his obliviously brainwashed characters.

Eighteen-year-old Alex (Molly Wright) doesn’t seem to realize how bland and drab her life is, with seemingly little to occupy her beyond learning Urdu(!) so that she can proselytize to the “underserved” Muslim community in her hometown of Manchester. But she does appear to find real joy in her relationship with her slightly older sister, Luisa (Sacha Parkinson)… at least until Luisa does something to warrant “disfellowship,” or kicking out of the Jehovah Witnesses. Now Alex and their mom, Ivanna (Siobhan Finneran: Boy A), are left on their own — they must shun Luisa — to dig further into their social and familial isolation even when, surely, their hearts are telling them that kindness and understanding are more what Luisa needs from them.

Marvelously understated performances from the cast combine with Kokotajlo’s unwillingness to let dictatorial belief systems off the hook, even as he finds sympathy for those caught in this one’s hooks, to make for a scathing critique of inhumanity in the name of some imaginary and blatantly invented greater cause. How positive a fantasy is religion if it cuts you off from life and love on Earth?

first viewed during the 61st BFI London Film Festival


Click here for my ranking of this and 2018’s other releases.


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green light 4.5 stars

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Apostasy (2018) | directed by Dan Kokotajlo
US/Can release: Jun 04 2018 (DVD)
UK/Ire release: Jul 27 2018 (VOD same day)

MPAA: not rated
BBFC: rated PG (mild bad language, upsetting scenes)

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.

  • Bluejay

    How positive a fantasy is religion if it cuts you off from life and love on Earth?

    The more I’ve pondered this over the years, the more I’m coming to the conclusion that the problem isn’t religion per se; the problem is people. As an atheist, I think religion is a social construct — but that doesn’t make it any better or worse than other social constructs we treat as bedrock realities and organize our lives around, like “money” or “democracy” or “the Constitution.” But just as economic policies around “money” can either lift up the masses or increase inequality, and various Supreme Courts have interpreted the Constitution to either restrict or expand basic rights, so too can religion be used to oppress or liberate. The same Bible used by slaveowners to justify owning people was used by abolitionists to call for freeing them. Religion fueled both the Inquisition and the Civil Rights movement. Both Malala and the Taliban that tried to murder her claim adherence to Islam. Jeff Sessions quoted Scripture to argue for obedience to a racist administration; Bree Newsome quoted Scripture when she tore down the Confederate flag.

    People have values, both good and bad, and they’ll use any existing social construct to reinforce their views. Religion is the cave under the tree at Dagobah; “What’s in there?” asks Luke, to which Yoda replies, “Only what you take with you.” People think they go to religion to find God, but what they really find is themselves. For good or ill.

  • Ah, but money and democracy are problematic constructs, and can and should be criticized and reevaluated and changed if they cease to serve their purpose. But many many people believe religion is beyond such reconsideration. So that’s one big difference.

  • Bluejay

    Of course problematic constructs should be criticized, but I’m still not seeing the difference here. Lots of people would also be resistant to the idea that “money” and “democracy” are concepts that have ceased to serve their purpose. But people ARE open to the idea that the flow and distribution of money should be changed, and that the campaign/election/voting process should be reformed and safeguarded so that “true” democracy can be expressed. Likewise, believers may not think that the existence of a deity is up for debate, but there’s plenty of wiggle room in HOW that belief gets expressed in the life of the individual and the community. For every religious code that cuts off “life and love on Earth,” there are plenty of believers who disagree and find that their faith nourishes their capacity for love, joy, and compassion (as well as courage to stand up against moral atrocities).

    I’m not a believer, but when believers who are good people feel that their faith bolsters who they are, then more power to them.

  • there’s plenty of wiggle room in HOW that belief gets expressed in the life of the individual and the community.

    Not in many religions, there isn’t.

    Which is what this movie is about, with regard to Jehovah’s Witnesses.

  • Bluejay

    Not in many religions, there isn’t.

    I mean, there are several strains of Judaism. Iranian clerics, Indonesian Muslims, and American Muslims like G. Willow Wilson and Kareem Abdul Jabbar probably wouldn’t agree on what a “good Islamic life” is. Christianity? Get Mike Pence, Pope Francis, Barack Obama, and Bree Newsome into the same room and see if they all agree.

    Which is what this movie is about, with regard to Jehovah’s Witnesses.

    Fair enough. But the JWs are a strain of Christianity, which has many strains; the wiggle room I’m talking about is BETWEEN kinds, not necessarily within them. :-)

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