Conflicts between Catholics and Jews are a hot topic, and many in the media and the academy enjoy making Catholics the bad guys.
A recent, highly publicized example is the book Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews by James Carroll, which alleges that the Church has been guilty of systematic anti-Semitism almost since its beginning.
Simon Magus is a cinematic fable about Catholics and Jews that avoids this trendy stereotyping. Set in a 19th-century shetl, it realistically recreates the texture of rural Polish life during that period from a Jewish point of view. But it is not anti-Catholic.
The parish priest and the local rabbi are both decent men and their beliefs and those of their respective flocks are treated with respect. Even the aristocratic squire, a nominal Catholic, is presented as a force for the good. If anything, the rabbi who administers corporal punishment to youthful transgressors is the strictest and most intolerant of the region's authority figures. But the movie's subtext is the anti-Semitism which pervades rural Polish culture like the ever-present fog that envelops the area's forests and farms.
Fortunately, English writer-director Ben Hopkins isn't interested in political guilt-tripping; his primary focus is elsewhere. He establishes a dream-like atmosphere in which non-rational happenings are everyday events in both the Christian and Jewish communities. Miracles are real, and evil is depicted as a supernatural phenomenon.
Simon (Noah Taylor) is a young, parentless Jew who's treated as an outsider (“a raven of the latrines”) by both communities. He's perceived by some as a kind of demented village idiot and by others as a magician who possesses supernatural powers to do either evil or good. Kids throw stones at him, and peasants pay him money not to put spells on their lands.
Hopkins convincingly takes us inside Simon's interior visions. It's ambiguous as to whether they are real or imagined. The outcast Jew is seen arguing with the devil (Ian Holm, best known to Catholics as Zerah, the Temple scribe, in Franco Zeffirelli's Jesus of Nazareth) and taking his advice in small matters like revenge against his youthful tormentors.
But Simon isn't the devil's disciple. The prince of darkness is presented as just one part of the spirit world which includes both Christian and Jewish manifestations. The outcast Jew prays sincerely and often in the synagogue, but the rabbi (David de Keyser) insists that he sit upstairs with the women during services because he uses his own words instead of those of the liturgy.
The region is in the middle of a great economic transformation brought about by the building of a railroad. Those merchants whose businesses were set next to the once-busy highway — both Christian and Jew — are being wiped out. The remedy is to construct a station next to the rail line where the entrepreneurs can relocate. The property involved is owned by the local squire (Rutger Hauer), and he must choose between two competing proposals presented by members from each community.
David (Stuart Townsend), a Jewish dairy farmer, makes the first offer but can come up with little money. The nobleman counters by attaching an unusual condition to the deal. He fancies himself a poet and insists the intelligent young Jew read his work and discuss it with him on a regular basis.
David's life is complicated by personal issues. He has long courted Leah (Embeth Davidtz), a widow who bakes delicious bread. But the only person who can bring him up to speed for poetry sessions with the squire is the well-educated Sarah (Amanda Ryan), who's also looking for an eligible Jewish husband. Leah's jealousy seems as if it will destroy the deal.
Hase (Sean McGinley), a wealthy Christian landlord, offers the squire more money for the same piece of land but is turned down. Furious, he exploits the community's antiSemitism and threatens violence in hopes of getting his way.
Simon sees himself as the man in the middle and tries to use this position for his own purposes. To ingratiate himself with the Catholic community, he tells the priest he wants to become a Christian and begins instruction in the faith. Hase hires him to spy on the Jews and set up retaliatory action against them.
Up until this point, Simon has functioned as the kind of scapegoat figure found in Yiddish folk tales. “I attract all the evil spirits,” he complains.
But lessons in the faith seem to have penetrated his soul. He's been taught the meaning of Jesus' crucifixion and about the martyrdom of certain saints, and when the chips are down, he is willing to sacrifice himself for the greater good.
Early in the movie, the young Jewish outcast says he was named after Simon the magician who was baptized by Philip in Samaria (Acts 8:9-25). When the convert offered Peter money for the ability to lay on hands and enable people to receive the Holy Spirit, he was sternly rebuked for trying to buy spiritual power and told to pray for repentance.
Simon the magician is considered by some to be the first gnostic, and there are some parallels between him and his namesake in the film. But Simon Magus is neither gnostic nor Christian. It's a serious and honest reflection on spiritual occurrences that appear to cut across denominational lines. By these means, the filmmaker transforms the material of a Yiddish literary genre into a work of broader appeal.
Arts & culture correspondent
John Prizer writes from Los Angeles.