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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

Protagonist (review)

Jessica Yu’s previous film, the strangely enthralling In the Realms of the Unreal: The Mysterious Life and Art of Henry Darger, challenged concepts of what a documentary can and should accomplish, and she does that again with her latest work. Emerging from an assignment to make a film about the 5th-century BC Greek playwright Euripides, this bold exploration of the writer’s theme of extremism taken to the point of tragedy combines interviews with four men whose lives took a path they never wanted with snippets of the playwright’s works performed by traditional puppets — anonymously masked stand-ins for us all — to create a demanding but rewarding examination of how we are, or are not, in control of our own destinies. Yu, winner of an Oscar for her short documentary “Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien,” draws startlingly self-aware confessions of the loss of self-determination from such diverse men as Hans-Joachim Klein, a former terrorist; Mark Pierpont, an ex-minister and escapee from an “ex-gay” lifestyle; Joe Loya, bank robber turned writer and teacher; and, in the lightest of the life-tales, author Mark Salzman (Yu’s husband), who found himself seduced as an insecure teen into a twisted version of martial arts. The men range in their tellings from funny and buoyant to poignant and stirring; all are wise in the probing analyses of their paths to the confidence and serenity they’ve come to learn. Are we the protagonists in our own life stories? Or do we allow ourselves to be played as puppets by external forces like fear, the expectations of others, and our own unfamiliar desires? Through these men, and through the ancient but still relevant perception of a long-dead writer, we are led to ask these questions of ourselves.

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MPAA: rated R for language and some violent images

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb
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  • JSW

    This review seems pretty much uniformly positive. Can you elaborate on what flaw(s) you found in the movie that caused you to give it a “Wait for DVD” rating?

  • MaSch

    Hi MaryAnn. This is the first time I post here, I like your reviews, just wanted to hint at Euripides being 5th century B.C. (although I don’t know if “the 5th century B.C. playwright” is an elegant expression). By the way, I wonder about the same thing JSW does.

  • MaryAnn

    There’s no flaw. “Wait for DVD” isn’t necessarily a negative, particularly when a film is near the top of the “yellow” category in the annual ranking (as this one is). In this case, it just means that this film will not in any way be diminished by watching it on a small screen. And also note that “wait for DVD” means “wait unless your favorite actor is in it,” which is the case of a documentary would translate, I think, as “unless you find the subject matter very compelling.” The appeal of this film is limited, but if it appeals to you, consider the light green.

    Euripides being 5th century B.C.

    Noted and fixed.

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