Simon Magus (1999) Poster


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Magical and profound, but not for everyone.
sackleywhistle5 January 2003
I stumbled upon this film on late night British TV during Xmas 2002, having never heard of it. After watching the main titles, it was obvious i would watch it all, and i'm glad i did.

The story, for what its worth, centres around a small Jewish community in the 19th century, vying for control of a new train station so that enough people will visit their village so as to allow them to continue praying together. However, the more illustrious local Christians want the station for themselves and begin to put into motion a course of events which will sway the squire (Rutger Hauer) to give them the rights to the land.

This is merely a part of the film. Its real focus is on the many characters it establishes and develops in a very short amount of time. Central is poor beggar and sometime magician Simon who is losing his faith due to the hatred shown him by his fellow Jews. Then there is Dovid, played with gentle grace by Stuart Townsend - ostensibly the star - who heads up the plans for the station and agrees to read and comment on the squire's poetry to curry favour with him. His relationship with the squire, his bride to be (Embeth Davitz, magnificent as always) and a beautiful, learned girl are the heart of the film.

What makes the film so memorable, however, is in Simon's journey away from his people into the arms of the Christians, only to be used as a weapon against the faith he has run from. Highlights include his conversations with the Satan-like Ian Holm - who convinces Simon of Jews' inherent evil - and his journeys along the railroad, of which he has no understanding and which he believes to be the means by which souls travel to the afterlife. These sequences are so visually poetic that any pretension therein is forgiveable.

Yet while writer/director Ben Hopkins is obviously concerned with issues of education, tolerance, spirituality and all forms of love and forgiveness, there is room for quiet moments of humour. Simon's early introductory scenes are witty and warm, making his subsequent actions all the more cruel on the part of the other characters. The local barman, whose idea of God is a beer glass which never empties, has few scenes but creates a sympathetic rounded character, as do many of the minor performers.

Inexplicably critically reviled by some British journalists, this film would appeal to anyone with a taste for off-beat European cinema or anyone looking for a character piece or something a little different. It seemed at first to be many separate things - at first i thought it to be a literary costume drama, then a period version of Finding Forrester, but of course, with all films of quality it is not one thing nor the other, but a combination of many elements woven together masterfully. Ben Hopkins is, on the basis of this, an interesting talent and all involved should be applauded for their excellent work.

You can bet if this film were in French or Polish, critics would lavish praise upon it.
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A film that should be better known.
Tony-4127 January 2002
I'd read about this film at the Noah Taylor website, but I don't believe it ever opened in the U.S. (or at least it didn't get wide release). The Sundance Channel recently showed it, however, and those good people should be heartily thanked for giving us the opportunity to view a minor masterpiece. The story involves the holy fool (Noah Taylor, in another remarkable performance) of a dying European village and the people whose lives he affects. The supporting cast, including Ian Holm and Rutger Hauer, who once again reminds us that he is indeed a good yet neglected actor, are all superb, and the story is alternatingly funny and tragic, in the best tradition of Eastern European literature. Strongest kudos must go to cinematographer Nicholas D. Knowland, who uses light and shadow to create a finely textured world, and whose often startling imagery (the Jews on the night train, the young girl waving goodbye to Simon) will stay with the viewer long after the film ends. If you get the chance, catch the director's commentary on the making of the film. I'm not at all sure that he realizes just how good a film he's made!
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Wonderful, underappreciated film
JohnSeal27 January 2002
This is the sort of film a mature, healthy British film industry needs to produce if it is to be remembered for anything more than gangster movies and low brow comedies. I don't know anything about producer-writer Ben Hopkins, but he's clearly an outstanding talent. The story is a simple and almost predictable one, but the world in which it takes place--Silesia, 1890, perhaps? --is one we aren't used to seeing on film. I'm not doing the film sufficient justice by describing it as a Jewish folk tale told in the best traditions of Hammer films, but Nicholas Knowland's magnificent cinematography is reminiscent of Bray's best efforts. Noah Taylor is superb in the title role and is ably supported by a host of fine television actors. Strongly recommended.
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Appreciation of quietness within oneself, of poetic expressions in love, of fate (and the inimitable being above) - a subtly formidable directorial debut from Ben Hopkins
ruby_fff10 June 2001
SIMON MAGUS is about appreciation of poetry and words…about the impossible being magically possible…about the change of fate…about God having a hand in it all without humans knowing it before hand…about encountering love, courting love, the action of taking the time to give and willing to receive love. (There is no Hollywood syrupy love or sentimentality. It's more in a subliminal order of things.)

I especially like one of the camera approaches director Hopkins and cinematographer Nicholas Knowland used. When there are segments completely without dialogs, and the camera is just panning from face to face to face, quietly stops at scenes: in front of Sarah's window, outside of the Squire's house…the lens spending moments with each of the characters. It intimately lets us 'see' into their inner worlds…their struggles and delights. It is atmospheric (with subtle complementary score in the background).

The fate element somehow reminds me of ("Winter Sleepers" and "Run Lola Run") Tom Tykwer's stories/films, where fate is front and center. Here, Ben Hopkins (using a costumed drama setting of the late 19th Century vs. Tom's present day environment) has let fate weaves its way around this web of human feelings among the village inhabitants - our five central characters. Dovid (Stuart Townsend) the young dairy farmer courting widow Leah (Embeth Davidtz) the baker. Sarah (Amanda Ryan) the young woman, who recently returned to the village from the city, is scholarly literate and a match to Rutger Hauer the Squire, who values words and literature over materialistic ends. Of course, ("Flirting" and "Shine") Noah Taylor's Simon, who appears absolutely unpleasant, untidy, unclean and eccentric in every way, yet he, too, has a heart and core within (so we are reminded through the course of this fable that appearance is not everything). The folks around were unable to 'see' the Simon within - except for the priest, someone outside of the Jewish community, who patiently helps Simon to disentangle his soul and mind - what a divine slate of hand opposite the Devil (portrayed briefly by Ian Holm in a Rutger Hauer's Blind Samurai garb in wide-brimmed straw hat) and the villainous Maximillian (Sean McGinley as the greedy, scheming business man of wealth lost in immorality).

"Simon Magus" may not be for everyone (NFE). It just might need some patience and faith in the unfolding of the story - certainly not without suspense (when evil treachery lurks). As the Squire observed that people are so busy with business and means that appreciation of the affairs of the heart is compromised, take some time away from the flurries of things and sit back and open your heart to the wonderful ensemble cast and the talented production that realized Ben Hopkin's tale.

P.S. The railway issue briefly reminded me of Michael Winterbottom's "The Claim," and the mostly low-light cinematography reminded me of master Roger Deakins' photography in the Coen brothers' "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"
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A rapturous trance of a film
jwarthen-114 September 2003
I've just watched the last 15 minutes of SIMON MAGUS for about the fourth time-- Sundance shows it all the time, and maybe that channel's programer intends to give it the exposure it should have had, years ago. One imagines Director Hopkins is a spell-binder-- to have coaxed the exceptional cast onto an under-financed backwoods Welsh location, and then gotten them on the same wavelength despite trepidations about looking silly in shtetl-garb and forelocks. Ordinarily I am deeply aversive to holy-fool fictions-- yet this one made me privy to an ethnic communal memory; the end-credits express thanks to Isaac Bashevis Singer, and one imagines him loving it (a 1972 documentary on him had the same mixture of tomfoolery and elegy). A tone-deaf earlier commentator decried the sound-track-- will bet you'll sit all the way through the scroll of names, listening to the last variations on a score that, like everything else about this film, is a lovingly precise devotional.
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A beautiful fairy-tale of the long-lost world
sashamalchik13 January 2006
This is a fairy tale about Jews and Christians in an Eastern European shtetl of the XIX century - a world that completely disappeared, which adds to the movie's sentimental value. A fairy tale about a "holy fool" that is generally charming, sometimes scary, brilliantly filmed, and visually arresting.

Unfortunately, it didn't quite do it for me - didn't fully step the line from reality into visual absurdity, but stayed at the threshold, which was somewhat irritating because I am generally not a fan of watching fairy tales on screen. Despite that, it left the best impression on me.
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Fine acting with deep emotional content
jiminglis28 June 2000
Great sense of time and place. Fine acting. A rather dour plotline does not make watching easy, but the reward is to see a fine piece of ensemble playing with plenty of emotional content. The ending is perhaps a little contrived but you need some relief at the end.
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Another point of view...
elenoid30 October 2004
Surprisingly I liked it... The thing is that the Jewish community is shown only in 2 ways: the first one is that jews are represented as some sort of evil (a.k.a. the Nazis propaganda), or they are shown as sweet & loving people who are degraded by the rest of the world... how ever in this movie jews are actually shown like... people... who can be jealous, happy, sad, mean.. & some of them don't like their religion... that's the good part...

What I didn't like about the movie is the temp... by maybe it's just me, & if the movie would be "faster' it would lose its entire charm...

& I have to say that I just loved the ending.....
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Madness Is Bliss
JustApt10 August 2010
In the beginning of railway era a milkman belonging to the small Jewish community decides to build a railroad station to advance a local trade but he's not the only one having this idea so the competition begins and the other side is capable to use any dirty means in achieving their goal. Mentally distorted Simon, who thinks that he is a kind of magus following Satan's will, gets himself caught amidst this struggle and is turned into a cat's paw by the wicked side. Film is highly grotesque and laden with subtle reminiscences to the New Testament, greediness and avarice turn religion into its weapon. Period drama Simon Magus is more of a stylish fable than a historical movie.
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The first heretic: A DVD commentary
Ali_John_Catterall12 November 2009
Warning: Spoilers
At the time of recording his Simon Magus DVD director's commentary, director Ben Hopkins hadn't seen Simon Magus for six years - since it came out, in fact - so his exposition is as much a grounding process for him as for us.

With such a complex genesis, and a range of influences from the stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer to Sergio Leone's Once Upon A Time In The West, Hopkins isn't 100 per cent positive he can remember what he's up to from scene to scene, but he's pretty sure that the initial position of Simon Magus is symbolic; like the Tarot's Hanged Man, Magus is often depicted upside down in medieval paintings.

We also learn a bit more about the historical Simon Magus, the 'first heretic' - branded by early Christians in a propaganda exercise, as a "failed, rubbish magician." As for why the film is shot in a pseudo German Expressionist style, "it's a good question. The answer is probably just because I like it and I'm somewhat obsessed with it. I don't think cinema's ever been that good ever again." Hopkins also elaborates on what it's like to work with Rutger Hauer. "A bit scary, because he's a big person in every way. If you annoy him, he might cut you into pieces!"

The obviously awed director also says, "He's one of the most eccentric people I've ever worked with. Half the time I couldn't understand what the hell he was talking about. He has a very kind of inventive and almost surreal use of language." Initially Ian Holm's devil character was named Sirius "and when he appears later on, 'Boris'. I thought this was quite humorous. To have a devil called Boris. But people didn't see it as humorous. They saw it as ridiculous."

As evinced from the Nine Live Of Tomas Katz DVD commentary, Hopkins is his harshest critic. The final scene "is a great ending to a slightly flawed and not-that-great a film. In some ways I regret making it as a first film; but you can't make a film twice, unfortunately."

For those wondering why we're not seeing more of this kind of thing in British cinema, Hopkins succinctly spells it out. "The market for this kind of film in the UK... collapsed, and then, let's say, was artificially removed by the UK Film Council, set up at the turn of the decade to support more mainstream fare. It was kind of the death knell for filmmakers like me in this country. Which is why I've been trying to work mainly abroad and on the continent ever since. I remember the filmmaker I was back then; my eyes were full of dreams. I'd no idea I would be so disillusioned so quickly."
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Atmospheric, but extremely boring.
CuriosityKilledShawn15 June 2006
Simon Magus is a weirdo living in some peasant country shire who every hates because he talks to the devil and plants. He's Jewish but isn't allowed to be a proper Jew because he's weird. So he tries to be a Christian, which the local priests are happy to help with since it will deplete the Jewish manpower, thus giving them more muscle in the future trading of the village once a new railway station is built.

Are you bored already listening to this? Imagine having to suffer through the whole film. The only good thing Simon Magus has going for it is the wonderful widescreen photography and lovely English countryside locations. Other than that you'll be needing caffeine pills to stay awake during the boredom.

It seems like an 'epic' student film with lofty ambitions but there's a massive amateurish feel to it. The sound design just doesn't seem right and some of the editing looks like it's been done on a home computer.

Actors like Iain Holme and Rutger Hauer come and go with no real effect on the film or the viewer. Both of them look thoroughly bored and wish to vacate the premises immediately.

I wouldn't bother with this film, it has nothing to offer apart from pretty scenery. And you can go out for a drive in your car if you want that.
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eternal chicken?
CountZero3131 June 2011
Simon is the village eccentric, plagued by visions of the devil. He halfheartedly turns on his own Jewish community when a dispute over the burgeoning railroad threatens community relationships.

This is a plodding, one-beat drama that is a chore to get through. Characters are simplistic, never more than two-beat in their actions. Simon is treacherous then remorseful, Dovid is ambitious then pragmatic. The other Jews are weary, the Squire is wise, Sarah is kind, and the evil businessman is from start to finish an evil businessman. There is some nice imagery fleetingly glimpsed, but it is small compensation for the insipid narrative and corny dialogue ("Teach me about this poetry of which you speak"). All in all, a bit of a waste of time.
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