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Once Upon a Time, When Truths Ran Deep

In 'Simon Magus,' British filmmaker Ben Hopkins takes his cue from religious folk-tale traditions.

February 25, 2001|ELLEN BASKIN | Ellen Baskin is a regular contributor to Calendar

In "Simon Magus," his atmospheric feature film debut, British writer-director Ben Hopkins offers a stylized twist on the film depiction of pre-Holocaust Eastern European Jews. Hopkins describes the film as "a magical story in the tradition of the Yiddish fairy tale."

"I always felt that if you want to say a truth, you don't hold up a mirror to it," Hopkins says. "Symbolism and imagination go deeper than the surface of things and often find the real truth. I live in everyday life, and when I go to the cinema I want to leave the everyday life."

This philosophy is on display in "Simon Magus," which opens in Los Angeles on March 9 in limited release. The film was actually shot two years ago, with Welsh farmland standing in for Hopkins' impressionistic turn-of-the-century Polish village. It was released last year in England and elsewhere in Europe, and was shown at last year's Sundance Film Festival, after which it was picked up by IDP Distribution, the company that's releasing it in the U.S. The film also screened last fall at the Jewish Film Festival in Los Angeles.

The title character, played by Noah Taylor (the band manager in "Almost Famous" and the pianist David Helfgott as a young man in "Shine"), is an outcast among his fellow Jews in an insular shtetl (a small Jewish community in Eastern Europe). Simple-minded Simon hears voices and has strange, sometimes demonic visions. If Simon Magus were a contemporary character, he'd most likely be labeled schizophrenic. As it is, some in the village think Simon is possessed by the devil, while others believe he has magical fortunetelling powers.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday March 4, 2001 Home Edition Calendar Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction
Film distributor--A story Feb. 25 on "Simon Magus" gave an incorrect distributor. The film is being released by Fireworks Pictures and opens Friday at the Nuart in West L.A.

Manipulated by local Gentiles into converting to Christianity and working against the Jews on an important land deal, Simon turns the tables on everyone, revealing that perhaps he's not quite the village idiot many take him to be. In addition to Taylor, the film's international cast features Ian Holm, Rutger Hauer, Embeth Davidtz and Stuart Townsend.

The building of a railway line plays a central role in "Simon Magus." A Jew (Townsend) trying to prove himself a worthy suitor to the woman he loves competes with a wealthy Gentile merchant for the land rights to run the station, expecting new business opportunities and much-needed capital to arrive with the train. This story runs on a parallel track to Simon's more fable-like existence, in which the lines between reality and fantasy are blurred, but the two merge dramatically at the film's climax.

In some ways, the story is a classic root-for-the-underdog tale. But everyone here is unaware of the painful irony underlying the enterprise: The same railroad that the shtetl Jews are championing will eventually transport them to their deaths in Nazi extermination camps.

This was not part of a deliberate dramatic plan for the film, Hopkins points out. "Originally, the railway wasn't there. The story was about owning a bit of land to make a hotel or something boring like that. But as I wrote it, it kept becoming more like a western," he continues during a recent interview. "Oddly enough, to me it was sort of like 'Once Upon a Time in the West,' which is one of my favorite films, the way the Jews and the Christians were fighting for the railway land.

"Then it just struck me one day that 50 years later these Jews would be taken on that railway to be killed. It worked out that way without my intending to do it, which is one of the nice things about writing, the way things creep up on you without you actually realizing."

This amalgam of inspiration--part fantasy, part romance, part good guys versus bad guys--is not altogether surprising, considering Hopkins' background. The 31-year-old London native didn't become interested in film until his teens, when he started attending reduced-price afternoon screenings at a local art-house cinema.

After soaking up the works of artists such as Werner Herzog and Federico Fellini--no strangers to cinematic flights of fancy themselves--Hopkins decided he too wanted to become a filmmaker. But first he attended Oxford University, where he studied the German and Italian languages and literature.

"It doesn't specifically inform the film," Hopkins says of his time in Oxford's hallowed halls, "but all that book learning does add up to some kind of wealth of intellectual riches. It's a rich flower bed, so to speak, and all kinds of stuff grows on it--flowers and weeds."

Jokes Taylor, "Ben's appallingly intelligent. He speaks about eight languages fluently. I've done foreign press junkets and film festivals with him, and he'll be doing one interview in Polish and one in Italian and be fielding questions in Slovakian or whatever. It's pretty impressive," the actor says during a phone interview from London.

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