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The Present, The Past, & The Fantasy: Discussing "The Apostate" with Federico Veiroj

An interview with the Uruguayan director of "A Useful Life" about his new film about a man apostatizing to leave the Catholic Church.
It's been half a decade since we last heard from Uruguayan director Federico Veiroj. In 2010 he followed his feature debut Acné with the small, elegiac and lovely A Useful Life, about an aging cinematheque programmer in Montevideo. If you, like myself, have often wondered when we’d get another cinematic novella from this observant, sensitive filmmaker, the answer is now: the director has returned with The Apostate, another modest and deceptively tidy character study of an out-of-sorts, out-of-time man. Gonzalo Tamayo, played with a sleepy-eyed, disheveled and lax handsomeness by non-professional Alvaro Ogalla, decides to apostatize from the Spanish Catholic church. After being raised (involuntarily, Gonzalo says) Catholic by his parents, failing at seemingly every stage of his education, pining for his beautiful cousin who’s already in a relationship, and running vaguely illicit-seeming errands for his never-seen father, Gonzalo seems sick of it all—and his act of rebellion against this despondency is to request to the Church bureaucracy that his name be stricken from the baptismal record.
Except: we never see the desolation Gonzalo says he senses everywhere, and instead we see a clever, good-looking, yet somewhat unsuccessful man aging past his youth, pursued by nearly every woman with whom he crosses paths, who seems to have no profound accomplishments but also no real travails either. Is his rejection actually religious? It is certainly spiritual in a way, but Ogalla’s beautifully ambiguous performance wonderfully treads the line between melancholy and merely annoyed and/or bored. What does such a gesture mean in this world today? Gonzalo speaks more about data retention and records, as if he’s talking about renouncing Facebook, than he speaks of Christ or God. Set to Hanns Eisler, Federico García Lorca y La Argentinita and Prokofiev's music for Alexander Nevsky, Veiroj’s uncluttered eye keeps his story lean and his characters wry—like the twinkly-eyed boy downstairs, who Gonzalo tutors, and his attractive mother—each sketched for their place in the story but also lingering with hints of meaning something extra to Gonzalo’s existence or his quest, something just on the precipice of his awareness, his sorrow or his joy. The Apostate immediately brought back all that I missed from this filmmaker, at once old fashioned and forward thinking, funny and tender.
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The Apostate had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. It has now traveled to the Viennale, which is featuring a profile of the filmmaking, showing all his work.

NOTEBOOK: I would imagine it might be strange to present this film in a country or a city that not singularly religious.
FEDERICO VEIROJ: Maybe, but in my case I know that the world is very different in terms of religion, the intensity of religion, and I believe the story is much more universal than only religion located in Spain or Italy, places where religion is more important. What I like about doing this film is also to leave the religion conflict behind. In this case, it’s Spain and the meaning of that, but also to apostatize I believe it’s much more than that. We can apply it to many issues. Hopefully it’s a conflict—and this is what I wish, as it will lead us more audiences, which if the most beautiful thing—I hope we can make the conflict not only about the religion but also about those traditions or things that one wants to leave behind. Even if it’s impossible, like the case of the film. It’s the utopia of the film, and that’s also my challenge to make something in a fantasy mode, because it’s impossible what Gonzalo wants. He wants to erase his past; and we cannot do that. So that was the first step.
NOTEBOOK: So the film did not begin with the religious concept, it began with a more general idea of breaking with the past?
VEIROJ: Yeah. Breaking with the past and also with the irony of the concept. I want to leave something behind at the same time that I’m representing it 100%. And that’s why I want to leave it. And what do you want to leave? You want your name to be erased there? What’s that? What’s the use of that, what’s the need for that? Those were things I was asking, and in the case of this character...it’s a movie of course, he has some political, social, family reasons, etc.—and poetic reasons of course–it’s his engine for the film. But it’s not only religion. I love the different levels of that; I didn’t want to make a “religious movie,” or “a man who wants to get out because he has a crisis of faith”—no! He believes in many things. He’s a believer. He doesn’t have a problem of faith. When he goes to the bishop he knows the things, it’s natural for him to walk and talk with this man, he has had an education. He’s just uncomfortable with some of the stuff. I think it was very tempting for me to fill the story with those levels: the family, the tradition, and the religion in Spain, and the relation between Church and state which is very particular there, also because of the past in Spain. All that leads also to the paranoia, the Inquisition fantasies...it’s kind of a game, we took advantage of that, you know? But for me, the first inspiration was a man who wanted to change something that was unchangeable—ah! Now that’s a fable! What do you want to do with that?
NOTEBOOK: In a way, by this man saying “no,” by saying “take me off the register,” he validates the register. If he said he doesn’t care, the register doesn’t matter to him, that’s maybe the purest way of saying “no.” But by saying, “no, take me off,” he’s actually saying that this thing is meaningful to him.
VEIROJ: That’s the thing. Maybe now in a contemporary way of interpreting it...okay it may be a stupid example but I want to leave Facebook: okay, I don’t have my account any more, but where is the data? Who’s keeping the data? Ah, the original Facebook business. Okay, I want to go there, I want them to erase it, I don’t know how the contract works but… It’s something you can be uncomfortable with, even if it’s nonsense.
NOTEBOOK: But why is it nonsense? I was certainly thinking of Facebook because someone in the film says “the Church has our data.” But why is this analogy a stupid thing, it strikes me as a very good analogy.
VEIROJ: For Gonzalo it’s not stupid, because he’s a socially compromised person and he doesn’t want to be counted as one of the people who ascribed to a religion because that’s a number that the Church uses for money purposes in Spain where religion is very into society. In traditions, in culture, in politics: everywhere. That’s why Spain is the perfect country and this is one of the first arguments of the real apostates, there are real groups that they don’t want to be counted like that, even if they were baptized or had their first communion. They don’t want to be counted in those statistics, because they don’t want to represent that, they don’t share that relationship between the state and religion, because they don’t like those values or they don’t have that faith or they are agnostic or atheist. In the case of our character, it’s not that, it’s just that he doesn’t want them to keep the records because it’s symbolic. In reality in Spain today, maybe this, the statistics, maybe he doesn’t want that side to grow, but in poetic terms, he doesn’t want them to keep that record. That’s what I like, because he wants to erase maybe some aspects of his personality from his past by doing that because it made him the kind of person he’s not happy with. But at the same time, he’s very respectful and asks questions and knows even Latin, you know? I like the conflict of one who is inside somewhere and wants to leave it because he is inside and he represents it. In Spain and this character, and it’s very special because the religion is everywhere in some parts of Europe and Spain, so I thought it was very unique this conflict. That’s something you see, everywhere you see, you know? Images everywhere, religion is very important there.
NOTEBOOK: You are Uruguayan, why make this film in Spain? Isn’t there enough of a Catholic presence there that you could have set this in Montevideo?
VEIROJ: No, because Montevideo and Uruguay is more like...how do you say it? More non-religious, a country not into religion. It was not a good place to do it because the inspiration was in Spain and also because of the manifestation of religion in society, the way it’s presented. Maybe it’s more Chile or Argentina than Uruguay, in any case. In Uruguay also the relationship between the state and religion is very divided. It’s not like in Spain, for instance, no, not even like in Argentina. But that’s in general terms. We’re not experts about religion, but also the feeling, the cultural feeling of the place, it’s very important, and for me also the inspiration was that. The rocks, the streets: that was the inspiration of the film too, those places that we wanted to shoot in.
NOTEBOOK: It’s interesting you say that, because while I don’t mean this as a disservice to the film, to my eyes the images were so spare that I wasn’t sure where it was filmed. The look had a degree of abstraction, that it could take place in Spain or a place like Spain: any place like this.
VEIROJ: It’s an “Old World” part of the world. Yeah, maybe it could be, in some way, in South America. Maybe it’s more “the Old World” like Europe. I understand what you mean.
NOTEBOOK: It points the film towards what you said earlier, in the direction of being a fable.
VEIROJ: Yeah, we needed that to make a church that had the symbols and you have the place where the baptismal records are kept, and the bishop—those places, the geography of the film is very important. We needed to make that very clear, it was not a film that could be taking place in modern religious spaces. No. It was in the Old World, the “Inquisition feeling.” The old Spain, the old Europe. It was the fantasy we wanted to create. Maybe that character is in modern times, but with a look of that old world.
NOTEBOOK: Did you always want to set this in modern times?
VEIROJ: I think the story of the conflict of this man, it has to be placed in these days, even if there are no mobiles and etcetera. It’s very contemporary, it’s something we are all the time reading about, in terms of a country that wants to be out of Russia, or Catalonia in Spain, or group of Islamists—that are not part of that other part, you know?
NOTEBOOK: That they cannot just cut ties.
VEIROJ: Yeah! You can apply a big thing to a big faith or religion or something like that to something very small: someone who wants to apostatize from a way of being, a way of work, or that group of relations that he used to have. It  is something you can apply to normal life, too. And I think today this is very normal, and the way we are living now, where we are situating people, where one needs to be in one place or the other, so to “be” something or represent something, it’s very important today. Maybe before, 20 - 25 years ago, there were not so many thing to establish that. But now, with your “tastes” on the networks: “ah, okay, this is like that.” I think that’s very contemporary. I like it to be very contemporary conflict, we are making a film today, not set in another time. It’s just the aesthetic of the story that we wanted to use those places.
NOTEBOOK: As in A Useful Life, it’s also in a world that’s very connected to the past. One can’t make a story in the present without having a history behind you that you have to embrace or leave behind—that you have to deal with.
VEIROJ: Of course.
NOTEBOOK: Why does Gonzalo not say “I’m leaving everything behind,” and forget his family as well? His father who has him doing shady things and his mother who is arch conservative—why doesn’t he cut everything loose?
VEIROJ: Because he loves his family. And he’s a family man and has family values. He wants to be with his cousin, with this woman, and he loves his mother even if those parents were very oppressive to him, he’s the one giving his mother a caress, apologizing and saying it’s going to be okay. He doesn’t do it because he’s not a crazy, out-of-society, freak guy, anti-social, anti-global…
NOTEBOOK: ...he’s not a radical.
VEIROJ: No.
NOTEBOOK: That surprised me. He’s actually quite lazy.
VEIROJ: No! He goes everywhere. For me, it was very important to be very respectful: with religion, with family, and also with his character. If I put this character in protest in the mob, now today we see all the time those images and you’d think, “ah, okay: a radical.” No! He’s a man who’s inside of society. He wants to study, he wants to work, he’s doing his best giving classes, he has a relationship with his mother, with his sister, with the baby, he gets along with everyone—he loves people. It was very important for me not to locate or situate him in “ah he’s crazy, he wants to apostatize because he’s crazy.” No! He has all his values there and in a way he cannot cut with everything because that thin line he wants to cut is with the poetic side of the thing, he wants to take out that tradition—but he loves his mother too!
NOTEBOOK: That’s one of the things I found most interesting with his character. In some of the few times he gets through to speak to someone about apostatizing, he doesn’t really get to verbalize his dissatisfaction. But he does in a sidelong way explain his attitude by reading excerpts of other writing to the boy he’s tutoring, and in those texts you sense a very strong dissatisfaction with the world in general. And yet the world he actually travels in he’s respectful, people are respectful to him...you don’t really sense the desolation or the cynicism or anything really “wrong” in the world. You almost have to place your faith in him that the way he feels is true, because we don’t necessarily see in the film things to confirm why he should be doing this. You have to take that leap with him—or not, and say “I don’t understand why you’re doing this.”
VEIROJ: It’s a sensation and also, for me, challenging. As I said before, today when we are talking about the representation, it is about “against what are you going to be represented.” In which things do you want to be recognized that you are against? That’s the way we see it now. That was very challenging for me: to make a character with those levels, and I’m happy that you like that and that you saw that because it was very fragile, you know? We didn’t want to close him in a small world, where he’s isolated and suffering. No! He likes women, he likes parties, he wants to go to a place, he wants to study, he’s confronting, he’s thinking, he’s moving. We need identification with this man, we need to be with him even if he’s kind of odd and his jobs aren’t great, we’re not talking about how he pays the rent, no, of course, we were going to another, poetic side of the thing.
NOTEBOOK: I think all of this is so tied to this actor you found. Can you tell me a bit about him?
VEIROJ: He’s my best Spanish friend. We met at the film archive, I used to work at the film archive in Madrid. We became friends there. He’s not an actor. That was also another challenge again. To make a film, you know, it’s a lottery. So once we solved the problems, okay we had the money, let’s just do it the way we see it. The range of emotions this man, who was my friend, was going to give me, that he is very sensitive, sometimes he looks and moves like a child, he has a compulsion of desire that we like to see on the screen, his look is very sympathetic but sometimes he could be very aggressive—I love that range. With an actor, I didn’t see anything like that. He was the perfect person. And the inspiration of the film came when one day he wrote me or we were talking and he was told me he wanted to apostatize. And I said, “Oh! What?” And then I realize what the meaning was and immediately thought this could be a story.
NOTEBOOK: He actually wanted to apostatize?
VEIROJ: He tried it! And the story is inspired by his attempt. Just that. Then we created a fantasy—he’s not playing himself. We didn’t document the way he did it, because there are so many other aspects. If you recall the scene when he goes to the bishop, the bishop says, “You know, in Franco’s times”—or “traditional times,” we don’t name Franco or the 40-year dictatorship— “to apostatize had this symbolic act, which is to walk out of the church backwards.” And Gonzalo says, “Ah, que bonito!” So, he’s a romantic. That was very important, also, to situate the character. He’s not doing this in a dramatic way, he’s smiling and happy with his place, saying “I don’t want to do that.” He’s not putting a knife to the Church. He’s cool. This is part of the thin line we were crossing.
NOTEBOOK: You’ve been talking about the story a bit as a fable, and when writing a movie about a religious process, whether it’s ending in someone being burned at the stake or, as is the case in this movie, deciding to leave the Church, I think of a highly organized progression to the denouement. Did you map out Gonzalo’s path before writing his complete story, or did you find it as you went along?
VEIROJ: Both. There were some sequences, even in the first third of the film, and the third third of the film, that we changed a little bit. The father’s presence in the film is very low, very low. And we decided that. If we psychoanalyze a little bit, Gonzalo has a conflict with institutions: the father image, the law, religion, the teacher and all that. To put in a father...we don’t need a sequence where he goes to his father: we can feel it. So we erased and we mapped and we erased. Things changed, but yeah we had the way that we needed, of course. Making a film that’s a fable, you need to construct it and you’re going to put some fantasy mixed with reality, that’s part of the enjoyment of the film. It’s kind of a game. We needed to make that grow, to have that journey to the final fantasy. We needed that in terms of narration and also sensation. Maybe this film has is similar to to A Useful Life in that we need complicity with the audience. Gonzalo is very special and particular and unique, but even if he’s like that you need to be close to him and his feelings. Once I have you in sight, as the audience, then I can give you…
NOTEBOOK: ...it frees you up a bit.
VEIROJ: Exactly.
NOTEBOOK: We’ve been talking about this line, this thin line, across many levels in the film, but I want to turn to the one you just brought up: the fantasy elements, the surrealism, some of the dreamier elements in the film. I thought of Buñuel many times. How did you find that line of when you wanted Gonzalo’s journey to feel like an actual thing and when you wanted to take the reality to another place?
VEIROJ: I wanted to have it all mixed. Like we are mixed, we people are mixed. Even if it’s a fantasy it has to give you clues that the narration is growing, that you are going to places. That it wasn’t just fantasy and this, this and this and it’s not important because it’s fantasy. No! It was helping to construct something. Even in the first part of the film, where the young boy has made a vow of silence: okay, this is something strange, something from the past, but what I liked there is the reaction of Gonzalo to him, it’s sensitive. And that has an importance sometime later in the film. I want it to be mixed, the present, the past and the fantasy: the three levels. Because the concept of this man always is all mixed.  We knew we needed some exaggeration even in the fantasy.
NOTEBOOK: And how did the film’s musical choices come into this? The music is very important to the story.
VEIROJ: I love to talk about the music in this film.
NOTEBOOK: Well, you stole some of the best film music ever, Prokofiev's music from Alexander Nevsky!
VEIROJ: [laughs] Not only that!  I even wanted one particular recording of the 20 recordings of that piece. It’s “The Battle on Ice” and it’s that recording, it’s perfect. What’s the meaning of that? It’s not a cinephile thing, so yeah that’s Prokofiev and it’s from Nevsky, but I don’t care, he’s my friend, okay? That’s the part of the music for the fantasy, in a way: Prokofiev. Then there’s the melodramatic music, that’s from the Franco era. I imagine you’ve seen some of the typical newsreels from that era? Half hour films about the coast somewhere, the flowers of that village in particular, the food of...very touristic kind of films, documentaries like that. I used to work at the film archive so I know the music of those films made in the 50s through 70s in Spain. Made by the best conductors and best directors; at that time, they needed to work, so they made the newsreels. We took from those compositions—nobody knows them in Spain! That’s the incredible thing, they’re just at the archives. It was part of my job to watch those. It was “the past” music, that classic, romantic feeling. So it was the Prokofiev, the fantasy, the romantic music, the other side...always talking about the level we were thinking of. The first song in the film is Federico Garcia Lorca, playing the piano, which is also not very known, and is very beautiful, a popular song in Spanish. The hard band is a Basque band and I wanted that to represent Gonzalo’s harsh humor. I like the combination. We have one Hanns Eisler song. Even the flamenco is not because it’s a Spanish film, it’s because it’s the way it’s related to his soul. Working at that detail. It was a film made in a very good group, all professionals...well, except for the main actor! My task was to make it as beautiful and deep as possible, and the music is part of that.

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