Whether you like it or not, we are all believers. We believe that the sun will rise every morning; that we can leave our houses safely and return with just as little incident; that the person lying next to us really does love us more than all the other people she has ever lain next to; that most of our decisions throughout a privileged lifetime have been correct. Some of us, of course, believe in more than that, but that remains incontrovertibly a matter of spiritual disposition. What separates a person of faith from those who worship earthly pleasures and, ultimately, money and hedonism, is a taste for what has been called righteousness but which we will address in less comparative terms as redemption. Pain may make the most of us, but at some point in a future we cannot hope to understand much less imagine, our pain will be given a caption and a deed. We will see the wrongness of our ways and know why we erred; yet we will also catch a glimpse of what we did right, what we loved for the sake of loving alone, and what we lost. Our iceberg will calve from this frigid continent and melt in warmer waters to reveal something about ourselves that we seem to have known all along. If this sounds like a load of malarkey, you will feel welcome in Northern Europe, a place of unending beauty and equally relentless skepticism. I would not dare crown the region – encompassing Austria, the Baltics, Germany, the Netherlands, Scandinavia, Switzerland, and Western Russia – the most civilized on our planet because such declarations smack of chauvinism. Nevertheless, nowhere else can you find such enlightened secularism, commitment to modern ways of living and thinking, and a love for beauty bereft of its religious connotations. There is something very commendable about this lifestyle, yet our admiration is tempered by our curiosity: are such assumptions not the typical vanities of youth? Is it possible that the most advanced part of the world is at the same time the most childish? A rather original take on this conundrum is featured in this strange film.
The setup will seem familiar: a halfway house run by Ivan (Mads Mikkelsen), a priest who does not believe that man is evil. His current boarders include Khalid (Ali Kazim), a Saudi Robin Hood of sorts and Gunnar (Nicolas Bro), an obese former tennis pro still mourning an out call that cost him his career. But the epicenter of the film and his newest rehabilitation project is Adam (Ulrich Thomsen), a chain-smoking neo-Nazi who lugs around a picture of his Führer and hates everyone and everything. Ivan decides that Adam needs a goal for his eleven weeks there. "Pick anything," he says, thoroughly convinced that there lurks something productive inside of Adam that craves fulfillment. Adam espies an apple tree flooded with blackbirds and suggests a pie from the fruit whose mortal taste brought death into the world and all our woe. Now we have all seen at least a dozen such vehicles: the goody two-shoes priest; the hardened criminal (making him a sympathizer of the most despicable regime in recent memory was a bit too easy); the Easterner who will be the target of this same racist; and the fat, harmless, insecure clown who loves his cat and plans on drinking and eating his way into Valhalla. Throw in Sarah (Paprika Steen), a damsel in distress, and a wise-cracking physician (Ole Thestrup) and the cast for a soppy, feel-good story is complete. Over time, and with knowing looks, Adam will discover man's true goodness in the form of this benevolent priest and his selfless commitment to reforming the wayward. He or Gunnar will fall in love with Sarah, and in the end it will be Khalid hugging him and wishing him a happy rest of his life, now that life has been expanded to include love, caring, and openmindedness. Despite the fact that you or I could write this script in our sleep, such stories do have a certain human humidity (to use the phrasing of this author) that many people still cherish. They will always be made and they will always yield a happy ending and smiles all around.
But here's where our expectations are pleasantly upended. The comic juxtaposition of Ivan and Adam, good versus evil in its most primitive form, is belied by a series of revelations about Ivan's life: his mother died at childbirth; he was sexually abused as a child and raised by his grandmother and sister, the latter of whom turned out to be wildly promiscuous and recently died; his wife committed suicide and his son Christoffer is a paraplegic in a persistent vegetative state. To make matters worse, Ivan has a brain tumor "the size of a volleyball," a fact that, according to his physician, makes him block out the truth. "When one gets too close to the truth," the doctor, a firm man of science, avers, Ivan begins to "bleed from his ear." If this weren't a fairy tale with a plethora of allegorical detail, one might question the medical authenticity of such a prognosis. But since we are dealing with the fantastic in the guise of the ordinary, this piece holds together with everything else we know. Adam has found the weakness of his enemy and exploits it more than once in brutal fashion. Yet he is not the only malevolent soul on church property: both Khalid and Gunnar display many of the traits that got them into trouble in the first place, except we have little empathy for their actions because although savable, they are inherently unhinged (most evident in Khalid's massacre of the blackbirds to protect Adam's fruit). What is even more deranged than the inmates' behavior is Ivan's voiced approval of their initiative and mores. When Adam threatens and swears at Khalid for not wanting to help him pick apples, Ivan tells him that "this is the type of attitude that will get us a pie." Khalid's bird shooting is hailed as a stroke of genius, as are Gunnar's revolting habits and his insistence on plying everyone with drink and food. The death of another inmate called Poul, however, an eighty-six-year-old former Nazi collaborator whom Adam immediately admires, is where Ivan shows his true colors, and those colors are the colors of the Lamb. Adam cannot understand why, despite Ivan's litany of suffering, the priest could forgive someone as admittedly evil as Poul. Adam would never do that, even if forgiveness were something he could begin to grasp. Then there is the matter of that Bible in Adam's room that keeps falling open to the same page regardless of how many times one drops it. And here, perhaps, we get the one predictable twist in a film full of high jinks and hooliganism, but it is the right thing to do and carried out with some creativeness. After all, Ivan, for better and worse, only wants to do the right thing and nothing more.