Danish writer-director Anders Thomas Jensen's follow-up to his dark cannibal comedy THE GREEN BUTCHERS is an equally peculiar but oddly winsome fable about the spiritual journeys of two diametrically opposed characters: an eccentrically optimistic Lutheran pastor who simply refuses to acknowledge the power of evil, and a hate-filled neo-Nazi.
Sentenced to community service at a small rural church for some undisclosed but no doubt reprehensible crime, bulldog-faced skinhead Adam Pedersen (Ulrich Thomsen) arrives with a shaved head, an iron-cross tattoo on his forearm, and a portrait of his beloved fuhrer Adolph Hitler in his suitcase. Ivan Fjeldsted (Mads Mikkelsen), the church's preternaturally cheerful priest, is unfazed by Adam's look, hateful convictions and badass attitude. After Ivan introduces him to the two other live-in miscreants gun-crazy Saudi Khalid (Ali Kazim), who's nursing a grudge against the Norwegian petrol company Statoil, and Gunnar (Nicolas Bro), a reformed alcoholic rapist and robber he asks Adam what goal he'd like to pursue over the coming months. When Adam facetiously replies that he'd like to bake a cake, the unflappable Ivan puts Adam in charge of the apples growing on the tree outside the church. Once they ripen, Ivan tells him, Adam will bake an apple cake. Adam, however, secretly sets himself a very different kind of goal. Disgusted by Ivan's turn-the-other-cheek response to every outrage the unrepentant Nazi throws his way, Adam is determined to shake Ivan's faith in God's all-embracing forgiveness and love as well as his firm conviction that whatever evils come their way like the ravenous crows that soon descend on the apple tree, or the worms that infect the fruit are simply Satan's challenges. The local doctor (Ole Thestrup) suspects that this deep, irrational belief is a form of something called Ravashi's syndrome: Like the Indian soccer player whose brain refused to acknowledge he'd lost both his feet in an accident and went on to play for another two months, Ivan is incapable of accepting any of the hardships that have befallen him. Ivan simply denies it all: his mother's death during childbirth, the sexual abuse he suffered as a child at his father's hands, his wife's suicide, his son's cerebral palsy. When the doctor hints that without such illusions Ivan couldn't possibly survive, Adam sees the perfect means for destroying Ivan: convince him that it's not the devil who hates him, but God himself.
While the signs and portents come fast and thick, and Adam's inevitable road-to-Damascus moment isn't entirely convincing, this well-acted comedy sits nicely alongside the prolific Jensen's strongest work, particularly THE GREEN BUTCHERS and the superb WILBUR WANTS TO KILL HIMSELF. All three are strange but affecting tales of spiritual survival set in a world filled with a lot of harsh realities but a few small miracles as well. (In Danish, with English subtitles)
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