Simon Magus Review



Published: March 30, 2001, Friday

With its murky, phantasmagoric look and portrait of a world watched over by supernatural beings who meddle in human affairs whenever they choose, ''Simon Magus'' is one of the boldest fairy tales to come to the screen in years. If the film's gothically gloomy ambience recalls Tim Burton's ''Sleepy Hollow,'' its allegorical story of an Eastern European village where Jews and Christians compete for the soul of a half-mad visionary has the vividly fanciful quality of a Yiddish folk tale. Although the movie has hardly any singing and dancing, it's not all that far from ''Fiddler on the Roof'' territory. And its biggest weakness is a screenplay that has the stiff, cut-and-dried quality found in the sort of musical-comedy libretto that has to spell everything out in stilted, quasi-mythical anguage.

The setting for the movie, written and directed by Ben Hopkins, is actually the area of late-19th century Austro-Hungarian Poland known as Silesia. Although the residents of the tiny village are devoutly religious, all belief is shot through with superstition and magic.

The title character (Noah Taylor), who is Jewish, is a social outcast given to fits of madness who survives by performing menial tasks for the villagers. Simon is regularly visited by a demon named Sirius (Ian Holm), who appears out of nowhere in various devilish guises and instructs him to commit small acts of mayhem. Although the locals persecute Simon (he's not allowed to pray in the temple), they're also afraid of him and the evil magic he might wield against them.

The film's production notes state that Simon was inspired by a minor biblical character, a Samaritan magician who attempted to buy his way into becoming one of Jesus' 12 disciples after Judas's death. In Christian folklore, a version of the same character was held up by early Roman Catholics as an exponent of the pagan magic that the church deemed inferior to its Christian counterpart.

The crux of the story revolves around a valuable piece of real estate. A recently constructed railroad that has bypassed the village, cutting it off from the trade that used to be its economic lifeblood, is threatening its very existence. Whoever builds a railroad station on the property next to the railroad can both save the town and reap a personal fortune. That property is owned by a wealthy squire, a poetry-loving aesthete (Rutger Hauer) who entertains two competing bids to buy a parcel of that land.

The contestants are a clear-cut hero and villain. The first to make an offer is Dovid (Stuart Townsend), a humble, idealistic young Jewish scholar who in building on the land hopes to win the love of Leah (Embeth Davidtz), a beautiful young widow who resists his overtures. Dovid's rival, Maximilian Hase, an already wealthy Christian, is a cartoonishly evil villain.

Because Simon is privy to people's secrets, Hase (Sean McGinley) persuades him to become his spy, offering him as an incentive full acceptance into the Christian community along with plenty of tasty meals. But Simon, when pressed into a plot to discredit the Jews, demonstrates an unexpected shrewdness and independence.

The best things about ''Simon Magus'' are its storybook palette and two of its key performances. The muddy landscape and crude, twisted architecture evoke a society living in the Dark Ages, where angels and demons lurk in every shadow. As a locomotive steams through the village, it has the glowering, bloodshot visage of an avenging dragon. At moments, the very earth under people's feet seems to be squirming with hideous half-formed creatures. Mr. Holm's hissing demon seems a creature bodied directly out of this soil, while Mr. Taylor's wild-eyed Simon adroitly walks the tight wire between tormented holy man and possessed maniac.

But what does this fable ultimately want to say? Clearly it doesn't intend to declare that Christians are evil and Jews good, although that's the implication. In folding in two treacly, predictable love stories, the movie undercuts its own mythic aspirations. As a yarn, ''Simon Magus,'' which opens today at the Quad Cinema, may be reasonably diverting, but the story never matches the movie's fantastic visual imagination.


Written and directed by Ben Hopkins; director of photography, Nic Knowland; edited by Alan Levy; production designer, Angela Davies; produced by Robert Jones; released by Fireworks Pictures. At the Quad Cinema, 13th Street west of Fifth Avenue, Greenwich Village. Running time: 106 minutes. This film is not rated.

WITH: Noah Taylor (Simon), Stuart Townsend (Dovid), Sean McGinley (Hase), Embeth Davidtz (Leah), Amanda Ryan (Sarah), Rutger Hauer (Squire), Ian Holm (Sirius/Boris) and Terence Rigby (Bratislav).


Review by Film

Simon Magus is a delicious fantasy of a fairytale set 100 years ago in the harsh landscape of Silesia
Visually lush, fable-like tale set in 19th century Europe and telling the story of Simon (Noah Taylor), a Talmudic Jew in touch with the Devil (Ian Holm), who becomes a pawn in the battle to build a railway line.

Continuing its remit to nurture British film-making talent, FilmFour co-funded this delicious fantasy from debutante director Ben Hopkins. Set in late 19th Century Silesia, it focuses on a rural community of indigent Jews threatened with extinction when a new railway line is driven through their lands, destroying their hope of trade.

In secret, dairy farmer Dovid (Stuart Townsend) approaches the local squire (Rutger Hauer) and proposes to buy swampland in order to build a railway station. The squire agrees on condition that he reads a volume of his poetry, but Dovid is unaware of his rival, the wealthy Maximilion Hase (Sean McGinley), who wants to build the station in order to start a pogrom.

To assist him, Hase hires the eccentric, despised figure of Simon Magus (Noah Taylor), who is plagued by visions of the devil (Ian Holm). Under Satanic influence, Magus is persuaded to convince Dovid of the need to withdraw his bid for the land, setting out on a journey which may end with his own self-destruction.

One of the more literate productions of recent years, the film reflects Hopkins' Oxbridge background and his passion for Germany and the Talmud. Yet his film is no elitist thesis, using Nic Knowland's vibrant photography to underwrite themes that remain regretfully relevant.

Hopkins belied his inexperience by running a dynamic, progressive production. "I learnt something new every day," said Holm of his cameo role. "And I firmly believe that if you ever stop learning you might as well go and drive buses." At the film's domestic press conference Hopkins had to consider public transport after his bicycle was removed from the grounds of an exclusive London hotel, by staff unaware to whom it belonged.



In the latter days of the 19th century, Jews were fleeing Eastern Europe. The reason, of course, was oppression, both physical and mental. Here we art treated to a glimpse of that happily lost world, where life was cheap and people were choking in their ignorance and poverty.

This squalid little village is the property of the local lord, whom everyone calls the Squire (Rutger Hauer), a poet who hates living in this backwater, he feels his existence rotting away, then one day, he's confronted by Dovid (Stuart Townsend), the milkman, who has an idea for reviving the fast dying town before it has too few Jews for even a minion [the nine guys needed for a prayer service].

Why Dovid doesn't want to leave is quite plain: he's in love with the widow Leah (Embeth Davidtz), who thinks that he's only after her because she's the only woman left in town. There's another woman of eligible age, Sarah (Amanda Ryan), who has come back from Vienna too educated for her own good. The rest of the town are a bunch of nasty people you wouldn't like to know. The Rabbi"(David De Kesler) is nasty; Bratislav (Terence Rigby),the local barkeep, is "his own best customer;" and most pathetic of all is Simon (Noah Taylor), the village idiot and privy cleaner.

Simon lives in a hovel the size of a large cardboard box, and everyone thinks he's cursed. In fact that's one of the ways he makes money. He gets bribes for not cursing people's fields. Had it not been for the fact that we see the Prince of Darkness (Ian Holm) himself on three occasions we would think that poor Simon was mad.

But there's a story to tell and it doesn't have much to do with Simonfor Dovid has an idea for resuscitating the town. The railroad passes through the Squire's land and a train station would do just the trick.

A wonderful idea, and the Squire is willing, but there's another bidder, the thoroughly antisemitic Hase(Sean McGinley), who is doing his level best to fight the Worldwide Jewish Conspiracy. His weapons are money and poor Simon, who is an outcast and treated like dirt.

It's not a pretty picture, but the tale is well-told and the characters are really interesting. Think of it as "Fiddler on the Roof" as soap opera. The acting is really good, Taylor should have gotten the Oscar for "Shine" and not Geoffrey Rush, who played the same part as an older person. Every Jew should see this and thank the Lord that s/he's in America.

Eric Lurio (Greenwich Village Gazette)