Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Adam's Apples -- a modern-day Job

Director: Anders Thomas Jensen, 2005.

Adam's Apples is an odd, black comedy with a "good versus evil" plot that is off-the-beaten path. With five quirky main characters, this Danish film is hilarious at times but is overly violent and the sub-titles are poorly translated, giving some of the curses a strange and comical reading. Though it won numerous awards at film festivals, ultimately its comedy is too sporadic to be counted as a hit.

When ex-con skinhead Adam (Ulrich Thomsen) steps off the bus at the start of the film, we see his iron cross tattoo. As the bus leaves, he pulls out a knife and draws a deep scratch on the rear quarter-panel. He is clearly a tough nut. But Pastor Ivan (Mads Mikkelsen), who picks him up, is a nut himself, a tender nut. With the lack of conversation and obvious body language, the challenge is clear from the very first scene: the evil neo-Nazi vs the good minister, a battle of wits for the faith of the winner.

Ivan takes in ex-prisoners to his remote rural church, and indeed they seem to be his only parishioners. He believes they are healing and he is helping them. But he is seeing life through rose-colored glasses. He is a polyanna preacher: he thinks he is buying cough medicine for the ex-alcoholic but this cough medicine is hard liquor. He listens to syrupy sweet pop songs from the Bee Gees; this in itself gives insight into his mental condition.

In some ways, Adam's Apples is a version of the book of Job. This is evident in the fact that Adam's Bible (given to him by Ivan) always falls open at the start of that book. Ivan, we discover, has been through a number of Job-like experiences. But unlike Job, who sees things as they are, Ivan cannot accept the truth and makes up his own explanations, creates his own reality. He has deluded himself. Further, just as Job was a battle between good and evil played out in the life of God's faithful servant, so too here is a battle between godless Ivan, determined to break Ivan's faith, and Ivan, a man of faith.

At the heart of the movie is an apple tree. This tree is a metaphor for Ivan's faith. When Adam arrives, Ivan asks him to set his own goal or task. Sarcastically, he says he will bake a pie, an apple pie with apples from the tree (the only one in the area) and Ivan takes this at face value.

At first, the tree is full of fruit, pointing to Ivan's strong, though partially deceived, faith. As Adam challenges Ivan and the others, and even brutally beats them, Ivan's faith starts to crack -- crows start to nest in the tree. As this continues, worms eat at the apples, and faith is faltering. Finally, Adam confronts Ivan and cruelly makes him face the harsh reality of his Job-like existence, telling him "God hates you." Faith is broken, and in a storm, the tree is toppled. Ivan is spiritually crushed and can no longer go on. The community is destroyed. In one last blow, the few good apples picked by Adam for his pie are eaten before he can bake his pie. This is the final straw and the harshest blow.

Adam's Apples puts us in the position of Job and asks if a loving God would make us experience suffering we cannot imagine. If he did, would our faith prove strong enough for us to cope and survive? Or would our faith be crushed? Would we, like Job's wife, seek to curse God and die? Adam points out that Ivan's faith is not strong enough, his polyanna version is a facade. Is ours any better? Is our faith based on truth, and a true understanding and view of God? Or is it a fictitious version, a god made more in our image? Can we handle the truth?

In a turn of events towards the end, there is a twist that allows Ivan to reclaim his faith. He leaves the movie with a strengthened faith. God works in mysterious ways to provide miracles, as he did in the latter part of Job's life. A test of faith, even one that appears to cause faith to fail, can sometimes be the spark that ignites a burning faith. And this burning faith can burn away the chaff that may be clouding or distorting our reality. As Job portrays and Ivan illustrates in Adam's Apples, sometimes the tests are the best things that come our way!

Copyright ©2008, Martin Baggs

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