The dangers of extremism and the virtues of uncertainty are the keys to the remarkable “Protagonist,” docu helmer Jessica Yu’s exploration of four men’s journey through dysfunction, obsession and redemption. The film’s sheer boldness — Yu uses puppets, and the work of 5th Century B.C. Greek dramatist Euripides to illustrate the timelessness of her subjects’ dilemmas — should make it a must-see among doc fans and artfilm cinephiles.
In some very specific ways, “Protagonist” resembles Errol Morris’ “Fast, Cheap and Out of Control,” in the initial elusiveness of intent and ; the disparity of its characters. What can Hans Joachim Klein, Mark Pierpont, Mark Salzman and Joe Loya — a German terrorist, a “reformed” gay Christian, a martial-arts enthusiast and a bank robber — possibly have in common? What develops — over perhaps too prolonged an introduction to their personalities and stories — is the issue of control: All were abused in some way as children and chose to cope through extreme and ultimately destructive behavior — behavior they truly believed would save them.
Klein was a child of Nazi Germany, and became part of the post-Baader-Meinhoff revolutionary movement that was involved with the kidnapping of OPEC ministers and the Entebbe hijacking. Pierpont, resisting his gay nature, became an anti-gay televangelist. Salzman, brutally bullied at school, was inspired by David Carradine and TV’s “Kung Fu” to pursue serenity through martial arts but discovered his obsession was overtaking his life. Loya, whose father was a sadistic bully, found solace through robbing banks.
The parallels between Greek tragedy and the subjects’ own harrowing histories eventually becomes clear, with chapter headings drawn from Euripides — from “Character” to “Catharsis” to “Reflection” — complete with Hellenic art motifs. The effect is to place four very up-to-date people in the frame of history, and portray the human condition as timeless.
Although most of Yu’s movie consists of the subjects reviewing their own lives — and how and why their dedication to their chosen causes eventually crumbled — she has chosen four very articulate people who never stumble over their words and have a total grip on the meaning of their lives. Their recollections never feel rehearsed, and the briskness of their delivery keeps the film from bogging down.
Add to this the elegant production values and the HD work of Russell Harper and Karl Hahn, and “Protagonist” is an irresistible and novel trip into innovative storytelling and satisfying resolutions.