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Inspired by the plays of Euripedes, Jessica Yu brings a fresh and bracing slant to the psychology of personality in “Protagonist,” her documentary look at four lives defined by fanaticism.
Although it takes a while for Yu’s thesis to jell, the film makes a lasting impression as it delves into an unfashionable territory: character as fate rather than a function of pharmaceuticals. Through the prism of its central quartet — an “ex-gay” minister, a bank robber, a German terrorist and a martial arts devotee — the docu lays bare the delusions and dangers of extremism, a timely subject in this age of black-and-white thinking.
A selection of the International Documentary Assn.’s DocuWeek theatrical showcase, “Protagonist” is slated for release Sept. 26. Its stylized aesthetic touches are best appreciated on the big screen, but the docu’s intellectual sheen and unwillingness to pander will probably make it a stronger performer on DVD than as a theatrical title.
To structure the dramatic arcs of her central quartet’s stories, Yu — whose “In the Realms of the Unreal” dared to animate the paintings of outsider artist Henry Darger — uses striking visual motifs. Robert Conner contributes elegant title animation sequences to announce thematic chapters that include “Provocation,” “Turning Point,” “Fever” and “Catharsis.” Supplementing the talking-head interviews, home movies, news footage and stills and serving as a true Greek chorus are puppets designed by Janie Geiser. The muslin-clad wooden creations of primitive, intricate beauty perform excerpts from Euripedes, with voice-over performance in ancient Greek. The puppets also enact some of the more crucial, often brutal scenes from the protagonists’ sagas, their masked faces hauntingly expressive.
After considering hundreds of potential subjects, Yu selected four men whose stories’ connective threads might at first seem elusive. But the film builds a compelling composite portrait of obsessive, all-or-nothing allegiance to a chosen pursuit, and the eventual embrace of uncertainty as a truer — and less destructive — approach. Outcasts during often devastating childhoods, they channeled primal rage into transgression and power over others, only to find themselves living a lie or having become precisely what they set out to oppose. That they found the strength to leave the fold — whether revolutionary cells or an evangelical church — is extraordinary. In Yu’s nimble narrative, their disparate experiences of struggle, triumph, collapse and rebirth overlap and parallel one another in increasingly fascinating ways.