In the Realms of the Unreal

Taking its cue from the controversial paintings of its odd subject, pic is not so much a biography as a cinematic collage, examining Henry Darger, a self-taught artist who has been posthumously lionized as a visionary genius. Pic is bound to spark debate over style and content, which might be its major selling point in limited theatrical release.

Taking its cue from the controversial paintings of its singularly odd subject, “In the Realms of the Unreal” is not so much a critical biography as a cinematic collage. Documentarian Jessica Yu (“The Living Museum”) employs everything from animation and voiceover thesping to archival documents and eyewitness accounts while examining Henry Darger, a self-taught artist who has been posthumously lionized as a visionary genius. Pic is bound to spark debate over style and content, which might be its major selling point in limited theatrical release.

Conspicuously eschewing aesthetic appraisals or psychological experts, “Realms” takes an implicitly sympathetic view of Darger. The reclusive janitor and dishwasher toiled in obscurity for nearly 60 years, filling his Chicago apartment with hundreds of paintings — some more than 10 feet long, with collages made of images culled from coloring books, newspapers and magazines — and thousands of typed or handwritten manuscript pages. His magnum opus is “In the Realms of the Unreal,” a 15,000-page fantasy-adventure novel detailing a decades-long battle between armies of Christian heroes and ungodly villains over the fate of enslaved orphan children.

Since his death at 81 in 1973, selections from Darger’s prodigious output — discovered by his former landlord, who retains control of his legacy — have been exhibited in museums throughout the world, and have inspired poetry, music, ballets and operas. Several critics and curators have lavished praise on the vivid colors and sophisticated compositions of his intensely beautiful and often disturbingly violent paintings.

However, his frequent depictions of small children — specifically, naked prepubescent girls who sport miniature penises as they are variously embraced, tortured, befriended or disemboweled by adults– have caused others to suspect Darger was a profoundly disturbed pedophile. Although Yu avoids any mention of such theorizing in her pic, she pointedly refers to Darger’s inexplicable obsession with retrieving a lost newspaper photograph of a murdered little girl.

For the most part, the film takes a compassionately benign view of Darger. Based on the testimony of neighbors and his own diary, he seems a harmless eccentric forever scarred by his Dickensian childhood in Catholic orphanages and state institutions.

Segments of his massive novel (narrated by Dakota Fanning and enacted in radio-theater fashion) appear to reflect a lifelong sense of outrage directed at injustices on innocent children.

Some auds will be unable to get past the unsettling content of Darger’s more violent paintings, which are imaginatively animated in a style that recalls Julie Taymor’s “Frida,” but often look like illustrations found among the personal effects of likely suspects on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.” If “In the Realms of the Unreal” does indeed make the leap from fest circuit to arthouse exhibition, defenders and detractors doubtless will produce reams of contentious reviews and essays.

In the Realms of the Unreal

Production: An Independent Television Service presentation of a Diorama Films production. Produced by Jessica Yu, Susan West. Co-producer, Joan Huang. Directed, written,edited by Jessica Yu.

Crew: Camera (color, HD video), Tim Bieber, Russell Harper, Michael Barrow, Shana Hagan; music, Jeff Beal; associate producer, Karen Carter; animation producer, Kara Vallow. Reviewed on DVD, Houston, Jan. 13, 2004. (In Sundance Film Festival -- competing.) Running time: 81 MIN. Voice of Henry Darger: Larry Pine. Narrator: Dakota Fanning.

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