Set in rural, 19th-century Europe in the small Jewish village of Silesia, this fable about intolerance is handsome without being especially thought-provoking. Simon (Noah Taylor) is Silesia's village idiot, an orphaned outcast pitied by some townspeople, feared and even despised by others. Tormented by children and forbidden to worship at the temple with...read more
Set in rural, 19th-century Europe in the small Jewish village of Silesia, this fable about intolerance is handsome without being especially thought-provoking. Simon (Noah Taylor) is Silesia's village idiot, an orphaned outcast pitied by some townspeople, feared and even despised by others. Tormented by children and forbidden to worship at the temple with the men, he lives in a rundown shack and survives by begging and doing odd jobs for Jews and Christians alike. And he has visions of the Devil (Ian Holm), who encourages him to do mischief and worse. Conceived in the image of holy fools of folk tradition, Simon is a perplexing and often unappealing character through whom the secrets of his community are gradually revealed. Silesia is dying: Most of its residents have moved away seeking greener pastures since the new railroad was built, taking everyone's business elsewhere. But Dovid Bendel (Stuart Townsend) envisions a solution: If there were a local station and an adjoining market complex, trade for the entire region could be revitalized. Dovid also hopes that if he can bring his dream to fruition, it will win him favor in the eyes of Leah (Embeth Davidtz). A widow with two small daughters, one sickly, Leah has been rejecting Dovid's advances with the admonition that he'd be better off with a younger woman; in fact, she's afraid he'll eventually abandon her for someone less encumbered with responsibilities. To build a train station, Dovid must buy a plot of land from Count Albrecht (Rutger Hauer), the local squire through whose property the railroad runs. This is no small thing for a man with little money, but the squire, an unusually decent and fair-minded man, is willing to consider Dovid's proposition. Unfortunately, the wealthy, unscrupulous and virulently anti-Semitic Maximilian Hase (Sean McGinley) has concocted a similar plan and wants to purchase the squire's land for himself. Told by the squire that he'll consider both offers and render a decision within the week, Hase begins to plot and scheme, seizing upon Simon as his unwitting tool (or is he?). Though the film ends on a surprising and genuinely magical note, it takes its own sweet time getting there; some viewers will have lost patience before the denouement arrives. That said, the film is consistently well-acted, and Rutger Hauer may surprise viewers who know him only from B-movies.
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