A stuffy atmosphere pervades Kingdom Hall, the suburban assembly point for the small community of Jehovah witnesses in the magnificent ‘Apostasy’ – the debut film by Dan Kokotajlo. With skew face closeups reminiscent of Dreyer’s Johan of Arc, and a masterful use of chromatic saturation to define emotional undertones, this is an important film. It is not easy to make a film about religion. Quite possibly the intractability of the subject, shrouded in the mist of interiore homine, is compounded by the exhaustion of the emotional traction of such topics amongst Western audiences. Amidst such intricacies, Kokotajlo’s result is as much powerful as it is eviscerating. Two main remarks here:
1. The killing of the main character half way through into the film is sheer genius. Because it is not a worn out cinematic cliche’ – following in the glorious footsteps of Antonioni’s “L’Avventura” or Hitchcock’s “Psycho“. Here, the main character is also the narrator, whose unexpected disappearance precipitates the audiences into that same despair the other characters undergo as the story unfolds. Breaking the fourth wall means dislodging a rational explanation from the plot. The rational explanation is the faith in the rational structure of the cosmos, in a word, the faith in God. This is concrete apostasy, delivered upon the audiences -visited upon us- via a single master shot, a mourning card.
2. The central scene of the movie unfolds when Louise is questioned by the elders in the stuffy assembly hall, after she had been “disfellowed” by them. Her repentance after the odious act of ‘fornication’ must be investigated. She is not a theoretician, but she emotionally grasps what is at stake here, and not only between her and the Jehovah’s cult, but really between late 20th century Western societies and religious affiliation tout court: “they want to dictate how I should live, but this my life” she cries. This sentence is the most piercing metaphor of our modern condition and its irrevocable detachment from organized cults. As Nietzsche’s knew, no system of beliefs has ever been disproved by rational analysis. Here in the film, as in our societies at large, it is precisely the feeling of alienation from a needlessly coercive and impersonally glacial structure that which dislodges people from organized religions or cults. This is the reason why they are bleeding acolydes throughout the Western world – with the remarkable exception of US. Apatheism rules.
In Genealogy of Moral, III,1, Nietzsche rightly said that ‘men would rather have void as purpose than be void of purpose” and Pulitzer-prize winner Edmund Wilson offered some reflections on this – grounded in biology. We must be respectful – but again, and from a purely aesthetic perspective, the German philosopher’s wise words above sound the best commentary on the reality faced by Louise, Alex and their mum amidst the undistinguished metropolitan periphery they inhabit, in the frugal or outright destitute blocks they dwell.