The Wild, Wild East 

No one does ghost stories like the Russians.

From its very first images under the credits, Ben Hopkins' Simon Magus has the look and feel of an authentic artifact from the Jewish Eastern Europe of long ago. The costuming, the setting, the cinematography, the characters' faces--all bring to mind early Yiddish cinema, the terrors of Jerzy Kosinski's The Painted Bird, and especially Roman Vishniac's haunting photographs: the bearded elders and side-locked youths, the shtetls, the dark forests, the legends of the Dybbuk and the Golem, the perilous life of the perennial outsider. Indeed, writer-director Hopkins subtitles his debut feature "A Tale from a Vanished World."

Our guide to this twilight fable of country folk is a rather untrustworthy one: a muttering, distracted young man named Simon Magus (played by Noah Taylor) who lives alone in a tumbledown shack, wears a comical fool's cap and raggedy clothes, talks to the devil in his sleep, and earns his living performing odd jobs such as cleaning the outhouses and running errands when he isn't begging in the synagogue on the Sabbath or entertaining children with stories. In a community of outcasts, Simon exists even closer to the edge. But this holy fool, full of dreams and prayers and enchantments, who takes beatings without protest and lies down to sleep on railroad tracks, will prove to be the savior of his people--at least in this little corner of Polish Silesia at the end of the 19th century.

A railroad has been built through the region, and an ambitious local Jew named Dovid Bendel (Stuart Townsend) has asked the local squire (Rutger Hauer, nicely aged and with a whimsical expression) for permission to construct a station and set up a trade center. Dovid's competitor in this business plan is the town's leading Gentile merchant, Hase (Sean McGinley), who is not above using anti-Semitism to squelch a rival. The squire is portrayed in Hopkins' screenplay as a refined, ironically inclined fellow who would rather read poetry than engage in politics; if anything, he favors the Jewish proposition because at least Dovid shows some interest in literature. Meanwhile, Hase tries to inflame the race hatred of the local goyim for his own financial advantage. Into this potentially deadly situation falls the village idiot, Simon Magus (named for the notorious "13th disciple" who tried to buy his way into the graces of Jesus Christ--a hated figure of Christian mythology, especially in places like Southern Poland). Both sides use Simon as a go-between/spy/ stooge, counting on him to do what he's told, but without taking into account his natural craftiness. And therein hangs the tale.

Bred in North London and educated at Oxford, filmmaker Hopkins considers himself a "diluted Jew" because his great-grandmother was Jewish, and his first feature (made in 1999 but only being released now in the Bay Area) captures the disheveled mysticism of Simon's village down to the smallest bit part. Taylor, last seen as the rock-band manager in Almost Famous, picks up Hopkins' conception and gives it wings--one of the keenest acting jobs of the year so far. The combination of craziness, saintliness, and cleverness is difficult to portray, but Taylor convinces us with a succession of hangdog shrugs, compulsive flourishes, and nervous tics. Simon's best speeches, naturally, are made to himself. The one exception is when Simon demonstrates his prescience by warning the villagers, "The railway is a demon, taking Jews to hell!"--a rather too obvious foreshadowing of the Holocaust.

All the other parts are made to order: Embeth Davidtz as the worried widow Leah, Townsend as the circumspect Dovid, Terence Rigby as Bratislav the barber, Hauer as the diffident nobleman toughing it out in the provinces ("It must be strenuous to be so cunning," he says to schemer Hase), and even Ian Holm, somewhat gratuitously cast as the devil of Simon's dreams. South Wales stands in quite well for Silesia in the location photography. And Deborah Mollison's score, based on Shostakovich's Piano Quartet in D Minor, adds to the Slavic wonderland mood.

Simon Magus presents a fairy-tale Eastern Europe glimpsed from far off through the telescope of melancholy nostalgia. The fantastic aspects of Alexander Ptushko, Konstantin Ershov, and Giorgi Kropachyov's 1967 fantasy Viy, meanwhile, are front and center, and thoroughly Russian.

No one does ghost stories like the Russians. And director-animator Ptushko's fanciful adventures of heroes, witches, Swiftian kingdoms, and sorcerers--now receiving a long-awaited mini-retrospective at the Pacific Film Archive, through June 8--are among the most amazing the former Soviet Union has to offer. Viy (1967) has been one of the most elusive of Ptushko's films for US audiences, and is just now receiving its stateside premiere at the PFA. Typical of Ptushko's work, it mixes gothic horror (from a short story by Nikolai Gogol) and grotesque animated effects in a proletarian automatic blender. And what it lacks in production values it makes up for in its lingering sense of dread.

A brawny, fun-loving seminarian named Khoma Brutus (played by Russian movie star Leonid Kuravlyov) is turned loose along with several dozen of his classmates for spring vacation, sometime in the 19th century. The seminarians immediately create chaos and havoc in the nearby town, exactly like 20th-century students, but eventually Khoma and two of his buddies find themselves lost in the country with nightfall approaching. They knock at a farmhouse gate begging for a place to sleep, and are welcomed by an old woman who seemingly takes a fancy to Khoma. Sure enough, she's a witch. After Khoma spurns her amorous advances in a haystack, the old woman casts a spell, rides him around the courtyard like a horse, and flies him through the air. The resourceful Khoma wakes up in midair, forces a rough landing, and escapes. But the witch isn't finished with him.

Khoma's travels then take him to a village where a local landowner is calling for a priest to administer to his recently deceased daughter. He goes to the estate and is offered this proposition: he must pray over the dead young woman's body for three nights; if he succeeds in placing her soul at rest, he'll be rewarded; if he tries to run, the landlord's cossacks will kill him. Inside a spooky wooden chapel hung with Eastern Orthodox icons, the deceased rests in her coffin. She is played by actress Natalya Varley, who bears a startling resemblance to Winona Ryder. Khoma begins to recite his prayers, and from then on the action goes from the subtly gothic to the baldly fantastic to the gleefully absurd, with brief stopovers in the languidly grim. The corpse refuses to lie still. In a Ukrainian minute the dead girl, evidently possessed by the aforementioned witch, opens her eyes and begins a successful campaign to blow poor Khoma's mind--by commanding furniture, surfing through the air in her coffin, summoning up an army of claymation demons, etc.

In the manner of Sergei Paradzhanov and other Soviet-era filmmakers working the antirealistic side of the street, the prolific Ukrainian Ptushko (1900-1973) grasps the cinematic essence of unnerving fantasy: oddly formed human faces combined with erratic movement. The witch's sexuality--in both her guises--is the key to the film, a major source of bewilderment for the seminarian. The color is magnificent, and Armen Hachaturyan's music is also especially thrilling with its vertiginous string crescendos. Viy, which plays one night only--next Thursday, June 7--at the PFA, comes highly recommended, as do all the Ptushko films.


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