Young man’s struggle gives way to unexpected hardships typical of absurd comedy
How hard is it to break free from the Catholic Church? And I mean literally. How hard is it to excommunicate yourself from an unyielding Church that has less and less worshippers? Considering it’s an archaic institution that still exerts power on many countries, it’s not hard to guess that it must be quite difficult. And according to El apóstata (“The Apostate”), the new film by Uruguayan filmmaker Federico Veiroj, who delighted demanding moviegoers with the melancholic and subtly understated Una vida útil (“A Useful Life”), the truth is that erasing all your records from the Catholic Church can also give way to a series of hardships typical of the theatre of the absurd. And that’s only the beginning.
El apóstata is set in today’s Spain and is loosely based on the story of Álvaro Ogalla, a friend of Veiroj’s who plays himself and also co-scripted the film. And while it’s been fictionalized for narrative purposes, you can feel it boasts a great deal of truth. Like An Useful Life, Veiroj’s new film is superbly restrained and it states its ideas in a very appropriate low-key manner. Which does wonders for the performances — among other things. The mould of comedy with an occasional touch of Luis Buñuel is ideal to prevent the film from becoming solemn about its promise. Which doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be taken seriously; on the contrary: it should, but from a lighter approach — even if that sounds as a contradiction.
Gonzalo Tamayo (Ogalla) is a philosophy student who’s always about to graduate but actually never does. He doesn’t commit to any long-term plans and it doesn’t look like he’s passionate about anything in particular. But he sure wants to apostatize himself from the Church. And for a number of reasons, all of them valid.
He didn’t choose to be baptized, and he feels no connection whatsoever with any of the essential truisms of the Catholic faith. He feels he’s not represented by it at all and also disagrees with how the Church deals with the teachings of Christ — like if priests and the Vatican are meant to be austere, how come they have so much money? What he didn’t anticipate is that he’d be so frustrated in his attempt to have his name removed from the baptismal records, thanks to the Church’s bureaucracy and impediments.
Bishop Jorge (Juan Calot) is the man who tries to persuade him to abide by his faith, by basically saying a lot of nonsense that he intends to disguise as wisdom. Here the absurd begins to surface. And to think that Bishop Jorge is only the first obstacle Gonzalo finds in his way. Besides playing Don Quixote, during his free time our anti-hero also tutors Antonio (Kaiet Rodríguez), the son of Maite (Barbara Lennie), an attractive woman who lives next door and with whom he talks sometimes. Then there’s also his cousin Pilar (Marta Larralde), with whom he’s been fascinated since childhood. And, of course, there’s his mother (Vicky Pena), an overbearing, bossy woman who never leaves him alone. Talk about breaking free from higher powers.
So his need to apostatize from the Church can also be seen as a need to free himself from a dull life that brings no surprises whatsoever. Perhaps he fantasizes that by not being Catholic anymore, he could start over from scratch in all regards. While Veiroj never makes a strong point of it, symbolically speaking, it may not be the weight of religion that’s most overwhelming. It’s a good thing that there’s a degree of ambiguity at the roots of Gonzalo being such a slacker. Plus the overall carefully constructed languid atmosphere, with splashes of dead-pan humour, adds up to a layered depiction of this young man in crisis. Also, there’s a dream sequence where Gonzalo is to attend a meeting of wannabe apostates which suddenly turns into some sort of nudist colony that leaves him very disoriented — the sequence plays in a down-to-earth way, as master of surrealism Buñuel used to do.
Performances are top-notch, with Ogalla heading the list. What’s most amazing is how the director fluently elicits the most natural reactions from the entire cast. As regards cinematic technique, there’s nothing to complain about. The cinematography is always unobtrusive and articulate.
One possible flaw is that the narrative does drag a bit from time to time. While the deliberate slowness of the pace is right for the general mood of the drama, it also feels somehow lethargic, which is more noticeable since some notions are repeated more than necessary. That’s when you may feel the film loses momentum. Then again, since this is clearly voluntary, it’s actually up to viewers to decide how it works for them.
El apóstata (2015). Directed by Federico Veiroj. Written by Federico Veiroj, Gonzalo Delgado, Nicolas Saad, Alvaro Ogalla. With Alvaro Ogalla, Marta Larralde, Barbara Lennie, Vicky Pena, Kaiet Rodriguez, Juan Calot. Cinematography: Arauco Hernandez. Editing: Fernando Franco. Running time: 80 minutes.