Philosophy, faith, and family collide with the Catholic church in this scattered, disappointing comedy.
The Apostate (ND/NF Review)
In addition to faith, scandal, and fundraising, the Catholic church also knows its way around paperwork. To its credit, at least from my own experience, the church keeps excellent documentation in the area of who received what sacraments, where, and when. To its detriment, though, and again from my own experience, it can mire itself in so many forms and processes, it becomes an institution less about spirituality and more about bureaucracy. The frustrations of searching for baptismal records and being subject to the slog of pro forma processes are only the beginning for the protagonist in Federico Veiroj’s latest, The Apostate.
Gonzalo Tamayo (Álvaro Ogalla) is that protagonist. He is a philosophy major who decides he wants nothing to do with the Catholicism he was raised on (thus the term “apostate,” meaning one who renounces religious beliefs). Furthermore, because gave no consent to his baptism due to being a baby at the time, he wants his baptismal certificate—the key document that connects him to the Catholic church—expunged entirely. The church doesn’t necessarily see his side of things.
Between Gonzalo’s existential crisis and the arcane machinations of the church, The Apostate has a foundation ripe for comedy, and the film shows flashes of it where one might expect. There is some fairly direct humor when Gonzalo visits his church, learns about the ridiculousness of what it takes to apostatize, receives blowback from his family as a result of his decision, etc. There’s even the broader humorous notion that Gonzalo’s grand efforts to detach himself from the Church are nothing more than efforts to update paperwork. The reality is if Gonzalo wants nothing more to do with faith or religion, he only needs to stop participating.
But rather than explore and enrich these themes, maximize their deeper impact (either comedically or dramatically), and let Gonzalo’s decisions set other events into motion, The Apostate treats his desire to free himself from the Church as little more than the core situation in an underdeveloped comedic anthology. Throughout the film, Gonzalo moves among a collection of situations that, while mostly connectable in some way, offer no greater sense of cohesion or flow. This is particularly frustrating, as these situations each have enough of a base to build something upon, but they only get in the way of each other’s development.
The first facet of this concerns Gonzalo’s studies. He is one class away from earning his degree and yet he fails that class. The fact that his philosophical slant drives his apostasy and yet he can’t close that deal gives an opportunity to delve into some rich irony, but it’s treated as little more than one more thing Gonzalo’s overbearing mother can complain about (Her cliché reaches its zenith when she ultimately learns of his desire to leave the church).
On the amorous front, Gonzalo has eyes for his comely cousin Pilar (Marta Larralde). He has been attracted to her since childhood, and when she shows up at his place looking for a place to crash because her marriage is failing, he sees an opportunity to score. The tenor of this is difficult to reconcile. Yes, there is the triple-threat of incest, infidelity, and adultery (not to mention the fact Gonzalo’s first attempt to bed Pilar occurs while she is sleeping), but there is never the sense of taboo to the degree one would expect. Like his desire to be rid of the church, his desire to be with Pilar seems superficially situational. Gonzalo also engages in sex with an older stranger on a bus and has an attraction to his neighbor Maite (Barbara Lennie), and while these relationships’ perceived sinfulness might suggest Gonzalo is acting in defiance of the church, there is nothing earned to be defiant over; his position is philosophical, not spiteful nor vengeful. It isn’t as if he has been wronged by the church in any way, he simply wants to disassociate himself from it.
This is not to say that the film doesn’t have its moments of humor. Some moments in The Apostate are laugh-out-loud funny (including an ending that deserves a better film preceding it), but it’s all so slapdash. Perhaps this scattered offering of moments and ideas is a result of the collaborative screenwriting effort among four scribes: director Veiroj, star Ogalla, Gonzalo Delgado, and Nicolás Saad. It certainly feels like a lot of ideas were pitched and those that were considered good on their own merits weren’t considered for how they would fit within a collective.
In addition to those funny moments, Ogalla, in his first role, is quite enjoyable and something of an onscreen natural. It’s no surprise that the film’s core and hook—an apostasy—is something Ogalla experienced in real life; that sense of experience comes through. Still, these few virtues cannot compensate for the greater sins the film commits, and while it isn’t the worst way to pass 80 minutes, it isn’t the best cinematic option out there.
The Apostate screens as part of New Directors/New Films in New York City. To learn more about the festival or buy tickets, visit www.newdirectors.org.