Among other things, “The Apostate” concerns a young Spaniard’s attempts to break formally with the Catholic church, but the dramatic implications of the title are swiftly belied by its co-writer/director, Federico Veiroj, who strikes a lighter, more deftly ironic tone. Repping a slight letdown from his previous effort, the delightfully cinephilic “A Useful Life,” Veiroj’s follow-up nonetheless benefits from the same instinct to locate moments of absurdist comedy within the throes of existential crisis. It also moves the Uruguayan filmmaker from the confines of the Montevideo cinematheque in “A Useful Life,” which he rendered in black-and-white, to the full color and open air of Madrid, where the traditions of the church co-exist uncomfortably with the city’s cosmopolitan vibe. Veiroj’s glancingly subtle touch (emphasis on “glancingly”) may cost “The Apostate” a wider berth, but it stands to solidify his growing reputation on the festival circuit and beyond.
Playing a version of himself, first-time actor Alvaro Ogalla (who also co-wrote the script with Veiroj, Gonzalo Delgado and Nicolas Saad) looks so comfortable on screen that it’s sometimes easy to forget that his character is at a crossroads. A philosophy student on the brink of graduation, Gonzalo Tamayo (Ogalla) starts feeling the urge to rebel a little, perhaps as a way of establishing his own identity as an adult. First and foremost, Gonzalo sets about resolving what should really be considered a bureaucratic mistake: He’s not an active member of the church and certainly could not have chosen to be one as a baby, so he wants the obstinate bishop Jorge (Juan Calot) to please hand over his baptismal record. Much, much easier said than done.
But Gonzalo’s apostasies are not limited to renouncing the church alone. Though his symbolic unshackling horrifies his mother (Vicky Pena), who cannot comprehend why he’d go through the trouble and embarrass her in the process, Gonzalo feels sufficiently liberated to try new things. This includes casting an eye toward his lovely cousin Pilar (Marta Larralde), with whom he’s flirted since childhood, and paying some romantic attention to his neighbor Maite (Barbara Lennie), whose inquisitive son (Kaiet Rodriguez) he’s been tutoring on the side. While his symbolic resistance leads him to new possibilities, Gonzalo isn’t keen on committing that strongly to any of them.
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Ditto “The Apostate.” Veiroj isn’t an emphatic storyteller by nature. His hero in “A Useful Life” has devoted seemingly every waking moment to running a movie theater, only to watch it crumble in the face of bad financials, but the film doesn’t marinate in end-of-cinema despair. Here, too, Veiroj contents himself mostly with sketching out the contours of Gonzalo’s situation, rather than exploiting it for the melodrama that burbles under the surface. Among the many literary and cinematic references at play in “The Apostate,” Veiroj nods to Luis Bunuel in a dream sequence where Gonzalo is “exposed” among the members of a nudist colony, but he’s not a provocateur by nature. It’s safe to say that church officials will be easier on him than they were on Bunuel.
Gonzalo’s dalliances add up to precious little, but Veiroj’s comic tone finds purchase in his absurd run-ins with the bishop and a church so unwilling to lose a member from the rolls that they’ll stick him in a bureaucratic roundabout until he gives up. (An old ritual that requires an apostate to leave the church backwards while looking at the alter has a particularly delicious payoff.) Veiroj also touches meaningfully on the crisis within the church, which has to maintain its values while holding onto a generation that’s drifting away. (“The pope doesn’t represent everything,” the bishop reasons.) That conflict between tradition and modernity is at the core of “The Apostate”; it’s just not in Veiroj’s nature to dramatize it.
With its caressing natural light and attention to old-world architectural detail, Arauco Hernandez’s photography stands out among the tech contributions. That, along with Veiroj’s typically concise 80-minute runtime, makes the pic go down easy.