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IN SHORT: A far finer flick than most found in the arthouses. [Not Rated. 106 minutes]
A hundred and fifty years or so ago "Eastern Europe" was a concept that transcended geographical boundaries. Russia to Poland to the Slav nations and the Austro-HungarianEmpire; the cities were rich and the fount of culture. The outlying towns were poor feudal mini-empires, controlled by Land Lords. The one line of demarcation that was never crossed was the one separating Jew and Gentile.
In the Jewish community of [Silesia] lived the crazy and despised Simon Magus (Noah Taylor). He cleans the outhouses. He trafficks in curses -- giving or lifting, anything for a shilling. He prays by himself. That is a violation of Jewish Law, which required a "minyan" of ten men for prayer, but one imposed by The Elders of the Synagogue who don't want a crazy man around. Their evil will come back at them.
Simon Magus is not a story of religion. It is one of love and money.
The status quo in the town is simple. Jews are poor and Gentiles have clout and the twain rarely mix, save to pay their due to the Squire that owns the land (Rutger Hauer). The Squire has his land and his dogs and his library and is otherwise completely bored with the estate that has been passed down from father to son. The big change in the community is the arrival of the iron monster called the railroad which brings speed and noise and bypasses all existing methods of bringing products to market. Those would be the roads passing through the Squire's land. The establishment of a railway station could bring prosperity to the town. It could also have two other effects: it could bring the Jews and Gentiles closet together -- which is the proposal made by the scholar Dovid (Stuart Townshend) or it could be used to shatter the Jewish community entirely and force them to move on, which is the desire of the Gentile who controls everything commercial in the town, Maximilian Hase (Sean McGinley).
Hase has Money. Dovid has Knowledge. The Squire wants something that neither man can offer -- Culture, and someone who can converse intelligently on the subject. At the center of this subplot is a book of poetry written by the Lord, and its utter lack of reading audience in the town. It is this small thing that brings barriers crashing down as much as the railroad is wrecking commerce. Dovid offers to read the poetry, but Jewish men don't do such things -- it is left to the women and the men don't do anything with the women other than procreate. Dovid goes to the one woman in the town who can help him, Sara (Amanda Ryan) which causes all sorts of problems because he is courting another, a widow named Leah (Embeth Davidtz).
What has all this to do with the title character? So despised is Simon, so rejected by his community that he falls in with Hase. The deal? Find out what Dovid has offered the Squire and in return, get a guaranteed chicken for life. And acceptance in the Christian community as its first, and only, convert. It isn't the chicken that pushes Simon to the Church (although to a starving man that's a lot) it is the Devil (Ian Holm) who commands the mentally strapped Simon to reject those who have rejected him. Simon is the Crazy One, remember? He honestly believes that this mysterious character, who only appears on the road leading to the Christian cemetery, is truly the Devil. When the Devil makes a threat, crazy men pay attention!
Between the Devil and the Merchant, Ben Hopkins' script delves into some of the vilest anti-Semitic propaganda and rumor that ever belittled a people. It, and Taylor's performance delicately balances themes of loss and redemption that should be clear to Jew or non-Jew. What was difficult for this Member of the Tribe was not the anti-Semitic slurs, which we've known about all our lives. It was watching this recreation of a world that our great-grandparents fled; one that is as alien to an American Jew as it would be to to anyone not of the Tribe.
That being said, there is a beautifully written and performed story to be seen here. We should all understand that there is Hatred in the world. We should all know that there is also Love. Simon Magus walks the delicate line between the two, establishing a world which no longer exists filled with emotions that always will. In creating both communities, Hopkins adds a lot of material which gets somewhat in the way -- "Simon Magus" itself is a character from the New Testament. All this combined leads to some symbolic visuals at the film's end which we didn't understand. We got the drift, but we don't know why. It's a minor complaint and one that doesn't greatly detract from this otherwise well told tale.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Simon Magus, he would have paid...
There are films that sit in the arthouses, good and bad, and that's all they are meant to do. There are films that are much better than that, even if they do delve into unpleasant things. These are the films that we keep our eyes open for and these are the movies we recommend to those of you that want something above average in intelligence and acting performance. Simon Magus is thus recommended.
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