A friend called me the other evening and said, “You’ll never believe it, but I rented a film with subtitles.”
Good for you, I thought…try something new.
Subtitles are nothing new for me, but finding something different, which distinguishes itself without trying too hard, seems to be. My friend’s revelation made me think about a recent small but fun revelation of my own.
If you’re a cinephile like me and feel like you’ve nearly seen it all, it may take quite a bit to get your blood pumping, to make you go “Hmm.” My favorite genre for generating this sensation (a comfort zone, for me) is dark comedy. Heck, I love the likes of the Coen brothers, Tarantino, and Guy Ritchie, but even their sadistic twists and frankly contextualized violence barely make me blink anymore.
Leave it to the Danes to provoke some attention in my jaded movie-watching corner. I recently watched a Danish film called Adams aebler /Adam’s Apples (2005), and I really did not know what I was in for. The reviews are very mixed—and, truly, this is NOT a film for everyone.
OK, don’t get all excited. This is no Days of Wrath (1943) or Babette’s Feast (1987)—two of many award-winning Danish films. But it is a kick in the pants.
In this silly yet startling caricature/morality play, a neo-Nazi (Adam) is released from prison and must do community service at a small church in the country. The priest (Ivan) who runs the program has the ultimate Pollyanna complex, which Adam takes it upon himself to beat out of him…with surprising results that are hilarious after the initial discomfort.
Adam is played by Ulrich Thomsen, a prolific actor whom I first saw in Festen / The Celebration (1998), a film that was riveting as a car accident but a bit too bleak for me to enjoy. The priest, stoic and mad as a hatter, is Mads Mikkelsen, most recently seen as Le Chiffre in Quantum of Solace (2008). Ivan’s other wards are fat ex-tennis-playing con Gunnar (Nicolas Bro) and aspiring terrorist Khalid (Ali Kazim), who are later joined by the pregnant Sarah (Paprika Steen) who comes to the priest for some less-than-stellar advice.
The film is made up of rather quietly comical scenes that erupt in brutality as Adam tries to bring Ivan down to earth. It’s a study in just how much one can turn the other cheek. In the end, it is Ivan letting go and giving in that changes everything—an interesting lesson folded into a mischievous tale.
At the start, Ivan gives Adam the nickel tour, including the pride of the churchyard, an old apple tree. He tells Adam to choose a project to work on. Tongue firmly in cheek, Adam says he’ll bake an apple pie. OK, then, says Ivan, so take care of the apple tree until the fruit ripens. Easier said than done. The work of the devil (according to Ivan) begins, with a series of blights afflicting the tree and its fruit. Ivan tries to make a holy quest out of protecting the harvest; Adam tries to—you got it—beat the notion out of him.
By the end, Ivan has had his nose broken repeatedly and his eye shot out (actually, the latter is a good thing because it fixes something else); Gunner’s cat is shot by Khalid while trying to rid the apple tree of blackbirds, Sarah has a Down’s syndrome baby and moves to Asia with Gunnar so the kid will “blend in,” and neo-Nazi Adam grows hair. You get the picture.
What I like about this film is that it presents all its piss and vinegar in a slyly humorous way. Mainly thanks to the superb acting, it manages to work in corn and kitsch, sadism and absurdity, all with fresh perspective—and isn’t that what we all need sometimes? If you can laugh at the grotesque absurdities of life, this might be a flick for you.
Written and directed by veteran Anders Thomas Jensen, best known in America for directing The Duchess (2008). Danish with English subtitles.