Written and directed by Atom Egoyan. Starring Devon Bostick, Scott Speedwell, Arsinee Khanjian, Kenneth Welsh, Rachel Blanchard, Noam Jenkins, Dominic Cuccozza. Rated R, 100 minutes
Our world has become unhinged from reliable sources and behavior. At times we just do not know what to believe. We all remember the shoe bomber who was to ignite his sneakers mid-flight. Then there were the volatile liquids that force us to pack inadequate amounts of shaving cream and hair product. But even longer ago there was this story about the Middle Eastern man who sent his pregnant Irish girlfriend on a plane with plastic bombs to blow her and their unborn child to smithereens.
I've not seen prior Egoyan films, but this one mesmerized me and has me looking for others of his 12-film portfolio. This film won the Palm D'Or at Cannes 2008, but has engendered much controversy amongst even his usual devoted Canadian countrymen, viewers and reviewers, and the American pundits.
Like Babel or Crash, there are multiple story lines that meander and cross over and double back, and many character surprises and duplicities that leave the audience confused, as if in a tortuous nightmare, clamoring for some semblance of reality.
The movie opens panning a hillside with formless office buildings in the background and haunting atonal violin music, and then a narrator intoning about seeing a violin-playing mother on a lake dock as her small dark-haired son approaches. Next we see an adolescent video capturing an older man (Morris, played by Kenneth Welch) in a hospital bed recounting family stories—he disarms us as being trustworthy and kind, and the boy filming seems to find him benevolent.
The boy is Simon (Devon Bostick), preternaturally intelligent and uncannily self-possessed and seems too wise to be only 16 or 17 years old. He has heard the story of the pregnant girl planted with a bomb on a plane as a translation from the French to English in his class. The teacher doubles as a drama teacher, and precocious Simon assumes and is encouraged to think as if it were his mother sent on that plane, with him as the unborn child.
His mother, Rachel (Rachel Blanchard), appears to be the blonde “Anne of Green Gables” Canadian girl, a violin prodigy, just as we saw her on the dock in the opening scenes. We now see her explaining unconvincingly to the El Al security guard why her husband-to-be is not traveling with her, and that she will meet her soon-to-be in-laws, who live in Bethlehem.
This connects to the fragment of the story where the ailing grandfather describes the drawings of the nativity figures that his deceased wife drew, and we meet Simon's Uncle Tom (Scott Speedwell), a tow truck driver, who seems angry, confused, and hostile. It's clear that something tragic happened to Simon's parents, he's been foisted on his not-so-happy uncle, who dutifully puts up with Simon as he puts up the two-dimensional, family heirloom, vividly colored figures: Baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph, Shepherds, and Wise men in turbans… come to adore.
Adoration of these Magi was in fact a diversity story two millennia ago, and the child born of the line of David, foretold by the Prophet Isaiah, to be born in Bethlehem, David's city, now part of the West Bank Palestinian State and then part of Judea. The story was not just for Jews, not just for Greeks, or even Armenians, like Canadian-born Atom Egoyan, but also Arabs and Persians. Diversity.
As Tom puts up the crèche, a woman in dark clothes, wearing a veil of plated sequins that appeared like a Trojan or Greek mask, comments, “It is nice to see you expressing a statement about your religion. We all respect Jesus as a prophet. Tom orders the Islamic woman off his property—not an auspicious start. A culture clash. A collision of intent and mistake.
Simon blogs his assignment, which causes a dustup at school when he begins to vehemently defend “his father” for his act of love in sacrificing his wife and his unborn babe. It recalled the Abrahamic obedience to God in his apparent willingness to sacrifice his long-awaited only son, Isaac. Simon is a rock in his defense of his father.
The reaction online is fast and furious from both supporters and detractors. Some are allies you worry about; others are sad, contrived, or simply unbelievable. Simon inhabits his role. You wonder what is truth and what is fiction. The controversy causes the drama teacher to be fired.
Simon's father, Sami (Noam Jenkins), appears late in the story as a Lebanese craftsman introduced to his mother to repair her valuable violin. We learn that Sami was not welcomed to Rachel's family, and that Tom's hostility and xenophobia were learned from his father, who is hardly the benign and gentle grandfather of the introductory scene, but instead a tyrannical bully.
The threads of the plots are intricately woven; there are identity surprises; and coincidental path crossings and pairings that are purportedly trademark Egoyan, the auteur of The Sweet Hereafter, a parable about a bus crash and the aftermath on the families and town, and Ararat, about the Turk/Armenian genocide that remains shrouded in political eggshells. The storylines are mystical, and the impact feels like the swerving and careening of an endless nightmare that in the end brings clarity and redemption.
The role of Arsinee Khanjian, Egoyan's wife and muse, in this movie is critical, and she plays it masterfully.
Adoration is like an intricate three-masted ship in a bottle—you almost cannot imagine how the builder, crastsman, and artist did it, but have to admire the product and the performance.
This film is not to be missed.