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Thomas Ian Griffith,
Simon is an outcast from his Jewish community because he claims that the devil talks to him and he has the ability to put curses on crops. When Dovid asks the 'Squire' to sell him some land so he can build a railway station, a ruthless businessman from the neighbouring gentile community uses Simon to find out who wants to buy the land so he can 'persuade' him otherwise. Written by
I stumbled upon this film on late night British TV during Xmas 2002, having never heard of it. After watching the main titles, it was obvious i would watch it all, and i'm glad i did.
The story, for what its worth, centres around a small Jewish community in the 19th century, vying for control of a new train station so that enough people will visit their village so as to allow them to continue praying together. However, the more illustrious local Christians want the station for themselves and begin to put into motion a course of events which will sway the squire (Rutger Hauer) to give them the rights to the land.
This is merely a part of the film. Its real focus is on the many characters it establishes and develops in a very short amount of time. Central is poor beggar and sometime magician Simon who is losing his faith due to the hatred shown him by his fellow Jews. Then there is Dovid, played with gentle grace by Stuart Townsend - ostensibly the star - who heads up the plans for the station and agrees to read and comment on the squire's poetry to curry favour with him. His relationship with the squire, his bride to be (Embeth Davitz, magnificent as always) and a beautiful, learned girl are the heart of the film.
What makes the film so memorable, however, is in Simon's journey away from his people into the arms of the Christians, only to be used as a weapon against the faith he has run from. Highlights include his conversations with the Satan-like Ian Holm - who convinces Simon of Jews' inherent evil - and his journeys along the railroad, of which he has no understanding and which he believes to be the means by which souls travel to the afterlife. These sequences are so visually poetic that any pretension therein is forgiveable.
Yet while writer/director Ben Hopkins is obviously concerned with issues of education, tolerance, spirituality and all forms of love and forgiveness, there is room for quiet moments of humour. Simon's early introductory scenes are witty and warm, making his subsequent actions all the more cruel on the part of the other characters. The local barman, whose idea of God is a beer glass which never empties, has few scenes but creates a sympathetic rounded character, as do many of the minor performers.
Inexplicably critically reviled by some British journalists, this film would appeal to anyone with a taste for off-beat European cinema or anyone looking for a character piece or something a little different. It seemed at first to be many separate things - at first i thought it to be a literary costume drama, then a period version of Finding Forrester, but of course, with all films of quality it is not one thing nor the other, but a combination of many elements woven together masterfully. Ben Hopkins is, on the basis of this, an interesting talent and all involved should be applauded for their excellent work.
You can bet if this film were in French or Polish, critics would lavish praise upon it.
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