An icon of persecution and an object of longing, the shtetl has undergone a small revival in recent European cinema. Simon Magus, an ambitious first feature by British writer-director Ben Hopkins, is both an ambivalent and gently nostalgic portrait of 19th-century Jewish village life. Simon Magus (Noah Taylor), an orphaned Jew and an outcast, is on familiar terms with the devil (Ian Holm); he suffers from hallucinations and uncontrollable impulses while cleaning outhouses and cadging alms from his dying community. Meanwhile, Dovid (Stuart Townsend), a mild-mannered scholar, schemes to revive the town’s fortunes by building a railroad station and petitions a local squire (Rutger Hauer) for the purchase of his land. But a ruthless gentile businessman (Sean McGinley), whose evil nature is signaled by his overlarge sideburns, tries to use Simon to foil Dovid’s plans.
Shtetl literature was filled with supernatural beings, but Simon Magus is closer to Disney than The Dybbuk. The film labors under its mix of grimy and magical realism. Its opening shots recall Roman Vishniac’s haunting photographs of Polish Jews in tattered clothing; but its set is oddly theatrical, and Simon’s encounters with the devil are full of jarring pyrotechnics. The vague location is also confusing: The accents are mostly British, while the hovels look Polish, and the squire (a blond Teutonic god) quotes Goethe and longs for Vienna. Hopkins creates some affecting images and characters, but his screenplay is at times annoyingly archaic, while Taylor’s energized portrait of Simon seems so contemporary he should be wearing Nikes. Though Hopkins lovingly re-creates the surfaces of shtetl life, its deep spirituality seems to elude him.