Simon Magus / The Nine Lives of Tomas Katz

Starring: Ian Holm, Rutger Hauer, Ian McNeice and Tom Fisher
Fabulous Films & Fremantle Home Entertainment
RRP: 15.99
Certificate: 15
Available 31 July 2006

Simon Magus is more than a little deranged. As an outcast of his nineteenth century Polish Jewish community, Simon claims that he has been given extraordinary powers by the Devil, powers to destroy the crops which keep the community alive. However progress is coming to this lost little world in the form of a railway. Dovid, aware that his community is slowly dying, determines to purchase some land from the squire to build a railway station, hoping that this will bring trade and wealth back and help a local widow, Leah. Dovid isn't the only one with this idea; a ruthless businessman Maxamillian Hase, from the local Gentile community, also wants the land and uses Simon to find out who Dovid is and what pressure can be applied to remove his opponent...

Simon Magus (1999) is a beautiful fantasy of a world long gone. Directed and written by Ben Hopkins who has written and directed a little over five films, all of which are impressive in their own individual way. The film won the Catalonian International Film Festival award for best director and best actor for Noah Taylor's portrayal of Simon. Simon Magus is beautifully shot, turning Wales on a budget into a dark and mysterious land, shot in sumptuously muted earth tones, where you really would believe that you could run across the Devil. Given its modest budget Hopkins has done a wonderful job of making the film look a lot more expensive than it is. He has also gathered together a prestigious cast who all produce excellent performances.

Taylor deserves the accolade that the film secured for him; his portrayal of Simon is mad, bad and ultimately very tragic. Whether madman or true seer, Simon's visions are prophetic, and whilst he remains unsure of the meaning of them, when he sees the railway taking Jews to hell he knows that the angel of death will ultimately be coming for them all and his instrument will be the railway. Whilst all around him view the railway as a bringer of wealth Simon knows it is a harbinger of death. It is this fear and the rejection of his own community which drives Simon to initially convert to Catholicism and fall under the evil influence of Hase.

Ian Holm does a good turn as a very creepy Devil. It remains ambiguous throughout whether Simon is really seeing the Devil or if he remains a fool who has been touched by god. Rutger Hauer, as the poet prince, also seems to be a character whose time has come, though he understands little of the changes which will sweep across his lands trampling truth and beauty beneath its jackboots.

The film isn't really a horror film, though it has elements of the genre, nor is it a fairytale. If anything the film is more like a tone poem capturing a moment of transition. The dying communities, both Gentile and Jew are on the cusp of a change, where old rivalries and buried hatreds will find full expression in the twentieth century, here represented by the introduction of the railway and, like King Lear, only the mad can understand what is happening with any clarity.

Running at a little under one hour and forty minutes the film print is excellent, though the audio is stereo. However, this is not a film that would have gained anything significant from having a 5.1 soundtrack. Given how good the film is the extras are generous indeed. Included is National Achievement Day, which is a short twenty-five minute Hopkins film from 1995 and a number of biographies of cast and crew. There is a commentary from Hopkins himself, which allows a greater insight to the making of the film and some of its influences.

As this is a generously proportioned disc, the second slightly shorter film (87 mins) is The Nine Lives of Tomas Katz (2000).

It's the end of the world as we know it and Tomas, an extraterrestrial, arrives the day before Armageddon. Climbing out of a sewer he takes a cab into London, where he starts body hopping and causing chaos. The only person who has any inkling of what is happening is a blind Ouija board owning policeman...

Shot in black and white, with a very large nod to German expressionistic cinema, The Nine Lives of Tomas Katz is a delightfully odd little film which at times is very funny, full of surreal imagery and playful madness; it's a real delight to watch, in which Hopkins uses a myriad of cinemagraphic styles to further add to the feeling of playful unease.

Tom Fisher, who plays Tomas, obviously has a lot of fun with his various roles, especially as the more than a little insane Minister for Fisheries, who declares war on Gwupigrupynudyland, throwing fourth para into the thick of war as a punishment - he still blames them for the sodomisation of his aunt Julia. Ian McNeice plays the blind policeman with a penchant for spiritualism, and is known to his peers as Mystic Meg. As the inspector tracks down Tomas the world and the film becomes increasingly insane.

The film comes with a commentary and, like the previous movie in this collection, is presented in stereo.

Overall, this is a great introduction to Hopkins work and is a worthy addition to any film lover's collection, especially lovers of movies that aren't afraid to think outside the box.

Charles Packer

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