‘The Apostate’ (‘El Apostata’): TIFF Review

The Apostate - H 2015
Courtesy of FiGa Films
Weighty matters, tackled with a wonderful lightness of touch.

Federico Veiroj’s follow-up to his culty ‘A Useful Life’ has a young Spaniard seeking to sever his ties with his Catholic education.

A young man struggles to wriggle free of the forces of Catholicism at work within him in Federico Veiroj’s witty, intimate The Apostate. Like his internationally well-received A Useful Life, Veiroj’s third film is about a David struggling against the establishment Goliath, building a platform for some profound ideas from a mixture of the everyday and the absurd. But despite his clear interest in matters philosophical, Veiroj has a built-in anti-pomp detector and The Apostate, with its winsomely shambling central character, is always deft, engaging and teeming with ideas.

It’s a film which is likely to speak loudest to territories where the church still exerts a grip over people’s private lives, but less so in places where people believe, rightly or not, that they’ve moved beyond that. Even the title may have some folk reaching for their dictionaries. But ultimately, the concerns of The Apostate are universal, which should mean that it follows Life out onto a successful cinephile festival run.

Philosophy student Gonzalo Tamayo (Alvaro Ogalla, a friend of Veiroj’s on whose life the script is loosely based and who co-scripted) has decided to renounce the Catholic faith. Given that he didn’t choose his religion and that his life has no connection with it, he wishes to have his name removed from the baptismal records. A part of the film deals with his frustrating attempts to overcome the bureaucratic and clerical obstacles to doing so, embodied in the threatening, platitude-spouting figure of Bishop Jorge (Juan Calot). Indeed, The Apostate would be interesting enough simply as a satirical documentary record of how hard it is in Spain to excommunicate yourself from a church which is worried about the free fall in its number of devotees.

See more The Scene at TIFF 2015 (Photos)

Gonzalo gives private classes to Antonio (the radiant-eyed Kaiet Rodriguez), the son of Maite (Barbara Lennie, who starred in one of Spain’s biggest critical hits of the past year, Magical Girl). Other women towards whom Gonzalo’s attitude will change as a result of his new-found apostasy are his cousin Pilar (Marta Larralde) -- to whom he’s been attracted since they were kids -- and his domineering, passive-aggressive mother (Vicky Pena), representing a little too obviously everything that Gonzalo’s seeking to escape from. Given that Gonzalo and Pilar end up sleeping together at a family reunion in the pueblo, this apostasy business seems to be the perfect panacea if it's self-liberation you're after.

The Apostate transitions smoothly between realistic scenes of cunningly-worked dialogue -- the philosophical face-offs between the plain-speaking Gonzalo and the sophistry of Bishop George stand out -- and dream and memory sequences, as Gonzalo’s unconscious engages with his new life. One extended, surreal sequence, which might have come out of Luis Bunuel, neatly wraps up themes of guilt and sexuality as Gonzalo dreams he’s at a nudist camp and is the objective of furtive whispers and pointed fingers: all of a sudden, it all feels very Walerian Borowczyk. (This scene also presumably explains the film’s 18+ certificate.)

References to the great Spanish novelist Benito Perez Galdos and many others situate the story in a broader cultural context than is immediately apparent on screen, and locate Gonzalo as part of a long literary tradition of literary religious rebels. But one of the film’s issues is that not only is it redolent of Bunuel, it could actually be him. Veiroj has opted for a non time-specific approach, and if you go back forty years, you’ll find plenty of post-Franco Spanish titles dealing with young fellows struggling to redefine themselves against their Catholic education, and The Apostate is a clear homage to them.

Sometimes, the symbolism is a little clunky: the choir boy who has taken a vow of silence, for example, stands too neatly for the ways in which the church can silences its followers. But at the same time, The Apostate feels nicely contemporary, in our data-driven age where any number of institutions are claiming ownership of us in exchange for our secrets.

Performances are excellent, with Ogalla, in a muted kind of way, holding things together center stage as a Gonzalo who starts out thinking that it might be a nice idea to renounce his religion but for whom it later becomes the driving cause of his life. Other characters flit in and out but are strongly conceived enough to leave their mark.

Arauco Hernandez’s photography elegantly re-imagines an old Madrid which now remains only in some specific barrios, one of shadowy immense churches, imposing arches and streets riddled with nooks and crannies. It’s as though Gonzalo must escape not only from the past, but from its oppressive urban embodiment.

The visuals work in clever tandem with the score. As with A Useful Life, the wildly eclectic ironic soundtrack is key to the effect, with Prokoviev and the experimental rock of Basque band Lisabo representing the film’s stylistic aural extremes. This works better in some scenes than in others, where it alienates: but the striking final showdown between Gonzalo and Bishop Jorge, combining mock Gothic towers (shot in Madrid) and the melodramatic majesty of Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky, will have buffs aware of the anti-Catholic message of Eisenstein’s 1938 classic joyfully ticking their movie ref boxes.

Production companies: Ferdydurke Films, Cinekdoque, ?Local Films, ?La vie est belle
Cast: Alvaro Ogalla, Marta Larralde, Barbara Lennie, Vicky Pena, Kaiet Rodriguez, Juan Calot, Andres Gertrudix, Jaime Chavarri, Mercedes Hoyos
Director: Federico Veiroj
Screenwriters: Federico Veiroj, Gonzalo Delgado, Nicolas Saad, Alvaro Ogalla
Producers: Guadalupe Balaguer Trelles, Fernando Franco, Federico Veiroj, Maria Martin Stanley
Director of photography: Arauco Hernandez
Production designer: Gonzalo Delgado
Costume designer: Monica Teijero
Editor: Fernando Franco
Sales: FiGa Films

18A, 80 minutes