ND/NF Interview: Federico Veiroj
Gonzalo Tamayo (Álvaro Ogalla), the sleepy-eyed, shaggily handsome hero of Federico Veiroj’s new existential comedy, has not acquired the habit of achievement. Well into his thirties, he’s been meandering through years of academic study with no apparent exit strategy. His only employment is occasionally tutoring a neighbor’s boy. He spends his hours hopelessly pining for a pretty cousin or slipping in and out of oneiric fantasies riddled with erotic taboo. He only becomes galvanized by a single quixotic goal: to have his name erased from the baptismal records of the Catholic Church, which is no easy task given the Vatican’s archaic bureaucracy. Having already ensured that he leave no mark on this world by way of a career or progeny, Gonzalo is now determined to eliminate even his token participation in a religious ritual to which he was too young to consciously consent to.
Set in a quasi-modern Madrid, which feels strangely cloistered in its narrow streets, diminutive parks, and quiet apartment blocks, The Apostate recalls Buñuel’s cinema in its deadpan approach to perversion and senseless desire, its dearth of delineation between reality and reverie, and its curious mixture of irreverence and almost fetishistic fascination with the rites and institutional mysteries of Catholicism. With the exception of Hong Sangsoo, I cannot think of another filmmaker since Jim Jarmusch or Aki Kaurismäki in their early work who is so devoted to nurturing such beguilingly low-key, highly stylized comedy.
Veiroj makes mountains out of molehills. His films are unapologetically modest with regards to dramatic development, perhaps because Veiroj possesses a rare confidence in the splendor of small things, trivial pursuits, and minor triumphs. His episodic, semi-autobiographical feature debut, Acné (08), depicts a smoking, gambling, brothel-frequenting tween’s single-minded quest for carnal knowledge at the expense of virtually everything else Montevideo middle-class privilege offers him, whether piano lessons, swimming classes, or making pilgrimage to Israel. The portly protagonist of Veiroj’s second feature, Jorge, is middle-aged, yet A Useful Life (10) was in its way also a coming-of-age story. When the Montevideo cinematheque where he programs films is forced to close its doors, Jorge finds himself without purpose. Yet after catching sight of his younger doppelganger on the bus, he suddenly focuses his energies on asking a woman out on a date, attending to the task like an amateur film actor developing a performance.
The Apostate is screening March 17 and 18 as part of New Directors/New Films. I spoke with Veiroj last September after the film’s world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Were you raised Catholic?
I was not. I was raised Jewish. I’m a Jew from Montevideo. So one of the challenges of making this film about a Madrid Catholic was the fact that I do not and have never belonged to the Catholic Church. The Apostate is not a religious movie, but it was important to me to feel close to its themes. Which was where my old friend Álvaro Ogalla, who became the main actor in the film, came in. He was raised Catholic and I know him very well. I also read books and watched films and learned a lot about the history of Catholicism in Spain. So in the end I felt like I learned enough to make this particular movie, which is, as I said, not a religious or metaphysical movie. It seemed very important to be specific about this tradition, this culture, this character, yet I think the basic idea could be transferred to another religion or another setting. To apostatize is not something that you do just with religion. You can do it with your life. It’s about embarking on life’s journey on your own terms.
What led you to tell a story about apostatizing? It’s a fairly peculiar thing to do, and your protagonist’s attempt quickly turns quixotic.
I was very drawn to the idea of a man who wants to leave something behind, something that he represents. It’s not reasonable, this desire to erase something. It’s impossible. It’s a fantasy in a way. Which is one of the reasons why we incorporated his fantasy life into the film. How can you be de-baptized? You did it, so how can you reverse that? Gonzalo has a fantasy of modifying his past so as to transform the present. It’s a bit like Back to the Future. What is that film really about if not the fantasy we all share about modifying the past? I was drawn to this character because I wanted to know who would actually do this, would apostate. Why is it so important to him? That seemed very rich to me, and it seemed resistant to any single interpretation.
When you put it that way it strikes me that you have a character here who seems to be trying to move away from God, yet he wants to do so by wielding godlike power.
He’s a believer. He’s not undergoing a crisis of faith. He’s not a radical. He doesn’t want to hurt anyone. He talks respectfully to the Bishop. He knows Latin. It was important to me that he has basic values that, for the most part, are not obviously going against the dictates of the Church. He just wants what he believes is fair.
He wants to be erased from the Church’s records, but must go about it in accordance with the Church’s edicts. At the end of the film he even performs precisely the ritual gestures expected from an apostate. The film is infused with a sense of reverence toward the Church. Even the very first image of Gonzalo’s upturned palm with the sunflower seeds seems vaguely allusive to religious painting.
Maybe, yeah. Sunflower seeds really worked for my interests, both aesthetically and symbolically. A man sitting in a park with the time to eat sunflower seeds: that’s our protagonist. He’s kind of a sunflower seed himself. Or an ant: a small item in a big field. And I like to see people eat or drink things that leave some remains. I like to see the empty shells or the traces of coffee after it has been consumed. If I take a picture of these things, I am somehow capturing someone’s way of behaving, of being in the world. That’s why I show Gonzalo eating the seeds at the very beginning of the film. And much later in the film you see the leftover shells.
This is the story of a man who wants to erase part of his trail, but when you eat sunflower seeds those shells leave a trail behind you.
Exactly. I like that. We need to see the trail.
We were speaking of reverence for religious rites. Did you follow the usual rites of passage for a Jew? Did you rebel?
No, I went along with things. I had my bar mitzvah. I’m circumcised. I’m fascinated by such things. I belong to a certain religious tradition, but I also belong to other traditions. I am a contemporary person. I read about everything. I have friends of every faith and friends with no faith. What’s interesting to me is that whatever we do with religion it remains part of out story. It’s something lingering behind us, something in our past. Catholicism was important for this character’s composition. I have my religious baggage and this character, who is embodied by my best friend, has his own. We have many things in common. You were talking to me before about the flagellant Gonzalo sees near the beginning. This guy is important for me because it’s the prompt for those little inquisitional aspects of Gonzalo’s fantasies. That flagellant is elemental to Gonzalo’s world, like the cobblestone streets and the little hidden chapels and the gigantic wooden doors. Things in this world are old, heavy, laden with history. Gonzalo’s fantasies and paranoia don’t come out of nowhere. Rather, they are reflections, however distorted, of his world. And Madrid is definitely his world. What make up his psyche are not the things you would find in the new world, where we are from. Gonzalo is of the old world.
You’ve mentioned that Gonzalo is very closely modeled on Álvaro, your old friend and the actor who plays him. There is a scene in which Gonzo is composing a letter to a friend who lives faraway. Is that friend you?
In a way, yes. Álvaro is absolutely the inspiration for Gonzalo and The Apostate is his acting debut. Álvaro’s attempt to apostatize inspired the film. He wrote to me about it. I lived in Spain, but by then I had returned to Uruguay. With this experience in mind the two of us constructed a character. We wanted this correspondence you ask about not only because it hints at the actual correspondence between Álvaro and me, but also because you never see Gonzalo with a friend. We needed some romantic feeling, something you can get from a man in a room writing about things that are happening to him to someone who understands his inner life. We needed him to express things and we didn’t want him on a couch talking to a psychoanalyst. Another nice thing about writing a letter is that it makes the audience complicit. He’s writing to you.
While I know what you mean about The Apostate not being a religious film, the letter writing also provides some connective tissue to the work of Robert Bresson, one of the great Catholic filmmakers. In Diary of a Country Priest or Pickpocket, writing becomes a way of giving voice to the internal questions driving the protagonist toward his fate.
I can’t argue with that. The phantoms of those characters are probably lurking somewhere in the background as Gonzalo does his writing.
The letter writing and its allusion to older films are also interesting because Gonzalo lives in a world where there are, for example, no mobile phones. Here we have a character who wants to fight the bureaucracy designed to record everything, and so it makes sense that he inhabits a world not yet afflicted with all of the devices we now use to record everything and render everything into data.
This is true, though I confess it was also an aesthetic choice. The only manifestations you see of modern technology are contemporary cars with their horrible designs. I didn’t want to deal with today’s technology. These days if, for example, we want to put a mobile phone in a scene we have to worry about exactly which mobile phone it is, depending on whether the film is set in 2005 or 2006 or 2012. We wanted to get rid of that kind of present. We wanted to have the film provide its own sense of the present. This is very much a film. It’s not a documentary. It’s not an exact mirror of everyday experience. So he writes letters instead of emails. And he has no mobile phone.
In a sense you are apostatizing from the secular religion of technology. You want to remove yourself from the world of ubiquitous data-collecting computers.
Ha! I think you might just be right. I should point out that we do see two or three computers in the film, but they are seen at the nun’s office. Of course they’re big monitors, big PCs.
They too read on screen almost like ancient things.
You got it! The bottom line is that technological objects could wind up being distracting to the point where they could inhibit one’s appreciation of the film.
If we replace the Catholic Church with Big Data The Apostate is, in a way, a religious film. It becomes a parable about this conflict with forces that have for some people replaced religion: the monitoring of everything, the erosion of privacy, and so forth.
I totally agree. I like that interpretation. You can say that it is a religious movie in the sense that the character is struggling with things that, whether spiritual or technological, are not touchable. You call them forces. Everyone has to struggle with these forces or the forces will take some part of us.
I am not a religious person but I relate to the fascination or anxiety generated by the idea of the infinite, whether the Church’s infinite records, God’s infinite knowledge, or the NSA’s infinite power to harvest information about us.
Me too, and maybe we can add to that the seemingly infinite knowledge of the cinema, which maybe already had some little kernel of our film waiting somewhere far behind us, whether in Bresson or Buñuel or who knows where. This anxiety and fascination for the infinite, which I totally feel in each of the contexts you mentioned, also comes to me a lot when I think of everything looming over me as a filmmaker with access to the history of cinema. But I’m happy to take things from anywhere. I don’t need to pretend otherwise.
You’ve emphasized the very deliberate artifice of the film. Music is reminding us all the time in The Apostate that we’re watching a movie. It’s not diegetic nor subtly integrated. It’s very presentational. I’m not familiar with the music that you selected.
It’s beautiful stuff. And by telling you about the music I can tell you about certain creative choices that affect the entire film. The film is a like a triangle: Gonzalo’s fantasy, his past, and his present. What you hear at the beginning, the piano with the woman singing, is a popular song, “Romance Pascual de los Pelegrinitos.” The piano is being played by Federico García Lorca.
Yes. People don’t know about this. He’s not known as a piano man, but there he is, playing. It’s wonderful. Presentational, as you say. There’s no mistaking it for diegetic. We felt that it would announce the film as a fable. I wanted to place this man, Gonzo, in a world where this music can happen. That’s his present. Then we have this melodramatic music that seems like out of a classic movie. This is music that made for “No-Dos,” the noticarios, or newsreels and documentales, or documentaries, made in Spain during the Franco era. The newsreels were very propagandistic. The documentaries might be about a new building or that village with the beautiful mountain. They might be about hunting or health insurance. We took this particular music from documentaries about the developments in Spain in the ’50s and ’60s. In that period there were very great composers who needed work and found it making music for No-Dos. They worked for the regime but they were still doing their own thing, making beautiful music. The music we used was taken from films with images of vegetation, happy people, images that provide a nice image of the country, right? Since I work in film archives I know a lot of that music.
For me this music relates to the past, not just to the country’s past, but also Gonzo’s past. It’s there when he sees his name, when he’s with his cousin. Then there’s the fantasy music, which is Prokofiev, from Alexander Nevsky, the Battle on the Ice. We took fragments from what is for me the best recording ever, by Claudio Abbado. Today I guess no one hears it and thinks of Prokofiev, because no one is listening to Prokofiev, but I know and love that music. It seemed right. Big music, for the inquisition, the paranoia. Of course there’s other music, the flamenco and that really aggressive rock music, which seems connected to some inner discomfort Gonzo feels.
And there’s the song that his cousin sings to him at the family reunion.
Yes, that’s another popular song, a cruel song that kids sing. And Gonzo imagines his cousin singing it when she was a little girl. It’s a transporting song. Overall we wanted music that would reflect the different sides of his character. I wanted the emotional range of the character to be heard in the music. We needed this very artificial, non-diegetic music to allow the facets of this character and to allow the three aspects of this story grow at the right pace.
All three of the features you’ve made thus far are comedies. I wonder if the level of artifice you’ve employed is also tied to the fact that they’re comedies.
I don’t know. I am thinking about a project that could be much more dramatic, less humorous. I don’t really think consciously about whether a project is going to be more serious or more comedic, but I know this story I have in mind right now has some real pain. It’s hard to think about an approach to take until I get closer. So far I feel that I’ve simply used the methods that seemed most appropriate for the narrative I wanted. I know that this film needed a kind of drunken feeling, some exaggeration.
You mentioned the flamenco song. Its lyrics, as I recall, are about a lost child. Which made me think that in a funny way The Apostate fits rather well into this contemporary subgenre of so-called “man-child” comedies. Gonzalo in many ways seems like a man-child. He can’t complete his education, he’s still lusting after his cousin, there’s this whole thing about peeing the bed. His ideas about taboos and fantasies about nudists seems locked in an adolescent mentality. By the end of the film he actually teams up with a boy to apprehend his liberation.
Maybe. Yeah. I don’t see him as a Peter Pan eternal child type, but I think it’s important that he retains the ability to be surprised like a child. I believe at some point he makes an evolution of himself. When he steals the page from the Church’s book he’s going back into the past because it’s there in the past that he seeks change. He’s doing childish things, but in this story these childish things are the right things for this character to do. He’s really attached to his own child. There’s something to that.
You’re a fairly rare filmmaker these days in that you can work with this potentially ponderous material and deliver it with a light touch.
You know what? In the end, I just want people to enjoy the movie. Whatever the tone of the movie, I want there to be the joy of discovering something. I love to share, I love films, and I love to enjoy. And I’m happy. Sometimes just a single image of, I don’t know, a hand in a movie is all I need and I’m filled with joy. I never know what I’m looking for, but I know I like to enjoy.