It’s become a safe Hollywood holiday bet: People will run screaming away from the warm (suffocating) bosom of their family into movie theaters, looking for at least 90 minutes of dark, blessed escapism. And what could be more escapist than McDreamy (Patrick Dempsey) in a modern-day fairy-tale? Enchanted raked it in this weekend, with 50 million smackeroos over the five-day Thanksgiving holiday. Amy Adams, that charming lass from last year’s indie fave Junebug, is already being fawned over as an A-list addition. Keep Enchanted in mind. This weekend brings all sorts of great, artistic, Oscar-y stuff, though it’s all pretty depressing (The Savages, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly). But not to be overlooked is the documentary Protagonist, opening at the IFC Film Center on Friday.
Protagonist is about the extreme personal odysseys undertaken by four men: a German terrorist, a bank robber, a martial-arts enthusiast, and an ex-gay evangelical preacher. On the surface, the lives these men have lived couldn’t have been more different, but as directed by Jessica Yu (who in 1997 won an Academy Award for the documentary short Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien), the film illustrates the similarities of people searching for meaning.
The men are each engaging and entertaining—and at times, heartbreaking—on camera, and Ms. Yu allows them to tell their tales without interference or judgment, Errol Morris style. Like all good stories, each one starts at the beginning of childhood, and details the various events that set each man on a search for enlightenment. Sure, it’s a little weird to compare the trauma of Mark Salzman, a slight boy from Connecticut constantly bullied by his classmates, to that of Hans-Joachim Klein, whose mother died in a concentration camp and whose father was a Hitler-loving cop. But they come to seem almost like estranged brothers as they describe their struggles against the lives they were born into. (For the record, Mr. Salzman became the marital arts expert and Mr. Klein the terrorist. No surprises there.)
The documentary takes a rather unusual turn by structuring it like a multilayered Greek drama. Ms. Yu was inspired by fifth-century B.C. playwright Euripides (yep!), and spliced between each testimonial are wooden rod puppets with those ancient (creepy) masks and a voice-over of ancient Greek. (Which led us to a personal revelation of our own: Ancient Greek sounds just like whatever language Greedo, the bounty hunter working for Jabba the Hutt who attempts to take out Han Solo, spoke in Star Wars. Coincidence? Or is George Lucas truly a genius?) Perhaps we’re missing out on the whole classic-tragedy bit that is as true in contemporary society as it was in Euripides’ time, but the film is at its best when it’s allowing its subjects to tell their stories and not distracting us with, you know, puppets.
Protagonist opens Friday at the IFC Film Center.