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Too much 'Acting' dooms 'Simon Magus'

| Friday, July 13, 2001

'Simon Magus'
Director: Ben Hopkins

Stars: Noah Taylor, Stuart Townsend, Embeth Davidtz

MPAA Rating: Unrated, but PG in nature for uncorrected prejudicial distortions

Where: Denis Theater, Mt. Lebanon

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  • High-minded movies seldom are as messy as 'Simon Magus,' a fable set on the Austro-Hungarian border in the 19th century.

    It proffers so blatantly anti-gentile a message that it could not possibly be made if all of the characters swapped religious heritages.

    In a town called Silesia, the already small Jewish population is shrinking; the latest exodus left just 10 adult males, including Simon (Noah Taylor), a man-child who performs menial chores, like emptying the buckets from outhouses, but who, in the modest synagogue, is consigned to the balcony with the women and children.

    It is impossible to make assumptions about Simon's state of mind, because Taylor is so obviously 'Acting' with a capital A when he does a little of this and a little of that. He's like an under-rehearsed, under-directed community theater actor who stepped into an impossibly written role at the last minute.

    The saintly, scholarly Dovid (Stuart Townsend) would like to build a train station near the Jewish section of town to build commerce, which would be good for everyone, he says.

    The melodramatically anti-Semitic Maximilian (Sean McGinley) wants to build the station, too, but in his part of town.

    Both approach the land's owner, a squire named Count Albrecht (Rutger Hauer), a poet who will practically give the land to whomever appeals to his vanity by reading and discussing poetry.

    Dovid does all of his boning up on sonnets and limericks with the beautiful, young, well-educated, poetry-savvy Sarah (Amanda Ryan), but he inexplicably goes on preferring to marry the older, irritable widowed Leah (Embeth Davidtz), who spurns him.

    He doesn't seem at all interested, or even aware of, her two children, but the film doesn't question his fixation on the mother.

    Since you won't have to brush up your Shakespeare to figure out which bidder the squire will favor, we can go back to Simon, who sees apparitions of a devil named Sirius (Ian Holm). Sirius has an impish influence, like encouraging Simon to urinate on pesky boys.

    There's more. Simon is regarded as a mystic in the ghetto, where superstition and magic are treated with cautious respect.

    Writer-director Ben Hopkins gives us privileged information that Simon is a mystic. We see what the character does: eerie flash-forwards to what seem to be somber Jews riding a train, quite possibly to a concentration camp - visions that add unbearably heavy lumber to an already lumbering fable.

    What's that mean with respect to a train station everyone's praying for• That progress will facilitate annihilation•

    While the gentiles conspire with venomous tongues against the few Jews who are left, even contriving evidence that the Jews plan to dine on a gentile baby at Passover, the especially wicked Maximilian plots the ultimate disgrace - feeding Simon pork and encouraging the Catholic priest (Ken Dury) to convert Simon.

    The film sets up an awesomely clumsy metaphor between Simon and Simon Magus, who tried to buy his way into Christ's circle of 12 apostles (the film mistakenly calls them the 12 disciples) after the suicide of the traitorous Judas Iscariot.

    But then, from the outset, the film is guilty in the 21st century of the prejudicial injustices it purports to depict from earlier times.

    Ed Blank can be reached at (412) 854-5555 or eblank@tribweb.com .

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