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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

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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