You might have to be Catholic, or better yet a fallen Catholic, to appreciate the whimsical angst of The Apostate, a low-key Spanish comedy as knee-deep in Vatican bureaucracy as The Da Vinci Code. Maybe more so, as the film’s central figure, no-visible-means grad student Gonzalo (Álvaro Ogalla), literally engages with the Church on an official-document level. Asked at the outset what he needs a new copy of his baptismal record for, he replies, “To apostatize.”
What’s at stake, exactly? Even for American used-to-be Catholics, this is a head-scratching dive into Holy See administration, and that’s the joke — the Bishopric in Madrid is caught off guard by its own regulations. I can only imagine how the fight-city-hall comedy Gonzalo subsequently endures will play for viewers not trained in the Roman sacraments as kids. Good thing Uruguayan director Federico Veiroj seems as mystified and curious about Gonzalo as we might be — Veiroj’s movie actually spends most of its time hanging out with Gonzalo, who shruggingly tutors an inquisitive neighbor kid (Kaiet Rodríguez) with a sexy single mom (Bárbara Lennie), harbors unashamed lust for his unstable cousin Pilar (Marta Larralde) crashing in his flat after leaving her husband and does a lot of daydreaming. (One interlude leads him from a secret apostates’ meeting to a nudist party down the hall, for which he happily strips.) His rejection of the Church is justified in the usual ways (human suffering, injustice, superstition), but because he’s serious enough to want to battle the dogma instead of merely walk away, the monsignor he buttonholes (Juan Calot) sees possibilities for redemption.
Gonzalo is convincing because we’re told so little; his quiet urges as a seeker make him react to everyone with fond curiosity. Like Gonzalo, The Apostate is so dry and calm and reflective you can practically hear the director thinking, not too much, that’s enough. The airiness is anchored by the farcical steps our hero must make in order to have his baptism officially expunged from the Church’s record, which builds to a sort of anti-inquisition and a climactic heist. But the film’s observant, no-hurry vibe is what’s really going on; watching Gonzalo watch his grinning student quiz him on why women, and his mother, like “tickles” — or his sleeping cousin as he undresses yet again to try to screw her — is its own comic pleasure.
Ogalla makes it happen: Bedroom-eyed and shaggy, looking every inch like a reincarnation of dead-too-soon ‘70s French star Patrick Dewaere but without the haywire intensity, he’s an amiable spectacle. It’s easy to find him alluring, just as the movie’s women all do, because he’s utterly unthreatening (except to Church officials) and a rapt listener. Veiroj (whose two earlier features are also light and modest) sees no reason not to look at the world just as his protagonist does — as a lovable mess of things that happen, with no Prime Mover overlooking it all.
Directed by Federico Veiroj
Breaking Glass Pictures
Opens September 9, Anthology Archives