Federico Veiroj’s 2010 film A Useful Life examines how a projectionist unsuccessfully adapts to being told he’s obsolete in an era of digital Darwinism. By contrast, The Apostate, Veiroj’s latest feature, approaches the problem of self-valuation from the reverse angle, as Gonzalo (Álvaro Ogalla), a fledgling college student and perpetual daydreamer, decides he wants to apostatize from the Catholic Church, thus extracting himself from larger institutional powers. In fact, Gonzalo not only seeks a release from religion, but he wants all records of his former affiliation—including a baptismal certificate—destroyed. Veiroj introduces Gonzalo’s imperative with a jazzy tune, as the lanky and curly haired Gonzalo lounges on a blanket in the sun, carefully discarding peanut shells one by one. The dialogue-free setup establishes a man who knows how to arrange small, meaningless details, but who also lacks any sense of organizing the long-term dimensions of his life.
Veiroj’s gentle ribbing of Gonzalo’s faults defines much of The Apostate, whose title is something of an ironic misnomer, since Gonzalo’s act of rebellion hardly rivals that of, say, Martin Luther. Gonzalo’s dissatisfaction stems from his own inability to find comfort and satisfaction, either in religious or social life. Veiroj plays with these anxieties by using a clever, if repetitive, dream structure that takes the film inside Gonzalo’s wonky reveries, so that a proposed meeting of like-minded apostates turns into a nudist colony, with Gonzalo leering aimlessly alongside fellow attendees. Rather hilariously, Gonzalo emerges from his mid-day nap to find himself in the backseat of his mother’s car. Veiroj could play this material meaner by more overtly ridiculing Gonzalo’s ineptitudes, but his preference to linger in the character’s awkward headspace suggests a more humane approach, with Gonzalo’s repressed pain carefully considered even as it’s being mocked.
But the same reluctance to lambast Gonzalo’s ineffectual timidity results in a softer treatment of the film’s darker points, as when Gonzalo confesses (to himself) his love for his cousin, Pilar (Marta Larralde). Gonzalo subsequently strips nude and hops into bed with her, all of which seemingly takes place within his own mind. As more fantasies of consummated erotic desires crop up throughout the film, one questions whether Veiroj’s lighthearted approach underestimates Gonzalo’s potential danger to himself and others. To that end, The Apostate starts to play undercooked and shoddily conceived.
The film resolutely frames the character’s crisis as one of innocuous arrested development and even gives him a foil via a young student named Antonio (Kaiet Rodríguez), whom he occasionally tutors. Veiroj seems amused by the simple fact that Gonzalo, whose life is in disarray, sees himself as fit to mentor another, but the filmmakers soften that potentially revealing relationship by having Antonio’s mother, Maite (Bárbara Lennie), assume a more prominent, requisite role as a possible love interest.
The Apostate finds humor in unusual images or situations, few resounding with lasting impact. Jokey bits of business, like the sight of a priest smoking a cigarette or a nun pecking away behind a computer, stand in for a more daring critique of religious hypocrisy. Likewise, Gonzalo’s inability to pass an important exam prompts him to confront a caricatured professor, who spouts philosophical lines at him like “great is the audacity of ignorance” in place of instructive conversation or encouragement. The professor’s flippancy may be due to Gonzalo’s continued inability to pass his class, which is later hinted at by Gonzalo’s mother. Nevertheless, Veiroj fumbles the professor’s intent by not making his and Gonzalo’s history of past conversations clearer. By the arrival of the narrative’s final gesture, it’s obvious Veiroj prefers to let Gonzalo off the hook instead of doubling down on his existential quandaries.