When she was commissioned to make a documentary about Euripedes (a tall order, indeed), filmmaker Jessica Yu instead chose to see if she could apply the classical Greek playwright’s dramatic structuring principles to present-day living. Rather than rehash what made the tragedian’s works great or set them apart from those of Aeschylus or Sophocles, or probe his dramatic intentions through a flat biography format or literal stagings of his plays, Yu decided to make Euripedes somewhat tangential, a unifying force rather than the center of attention. She then spent a long time trying to find four individuals who would reveal for the camera, in soul-bearing conversations, the social conditions and moral decisions that brought them to where they are today–which is, to say, emerged from cycles of destructive and extreme behavior. To focus on truly ruptured lives not only gives Yu the appropriate dramatic hooks and embellishments she needs but also helps her fit her subjects’ rites of passage and emotional turmoils into elegantly appointed narrative arcs right out of the Greek tragic playbook.
It’s revealing, both for Yu and in terms of human nature, that she trains her camera exclusively on men; with the only female presence in the film hidden behind the camera, “Protagonist” often seems like a bemused inquiry into maleness. This is mostly corroborated in the case of Mark Salzman, who, unlike the three others in the spotlight, hadn’t acquired any sort of public notoriety in his quest for fulfillment. Picked on for his size and lack of strength as a child, and then rejecting the lifelong fear that gripped his father, Salzman, finding kinship and solace in the zen detachment of David Carradine in TV’s “Kung Fu,” yearned for the tutelage of a martial-arts master. His path to discovery, depicted with attenuated enthusiasm by both Yu and Salzman (who comes across at times like an even more grating Steve Zahn), is less engrossing than the largely uninvestigated social constructs that would make someone turn to this form of physical actualization. Nevertheless, Salzman’s story becomes more vivid when buffeted against the even more extreme behaviors of the other men.
The rest make up a motley crew: Mark Pierpont, whose Christian New Jersey upbringing forced him to deny his homosexuality as an adolescent, enter missionary training, and become an “ex-gay” evangelist, preaching his willpower to others as a way to salvation; Joe Loya, from a religious Mexican household, whose father turned increasingly abusive and violent after his mother died when he was seven, and who turned to criminal behavior, including bank-robbing, to help salve his own psychological wounds; and the German-born Hans-Joachim Klein, whose rebellion against his Nazi-sympathizing policeman dad led him to extreme leftist behavior, finally becoming radical to the point of association with the terrorist group Revolutionary Cells. Yu interlocks their stories, which dip in and out of each other and fall under strict chapter assignments such as “Provocation,” “Opportunity,” and “Doubt,” in order to further her central point that Euripedes’s basic human portraitures are both relevant and universal, as well as to impose the idea that, despite our trials and tribulations, we are somehow beholden to fate–we may shed our skins, but we can’t change our essential natures.
Yu’s framework is overly high concept, yet her reliance on talking-head tale-weaving makes for an oddly appealing intimacy with her subjects. Yet, as with her previous feature, “In the Realms of the Unreal,” Yu embellishes her narrative with too much self-conscious stylistic adornment, in this case, admittedly lovely wooden-carved puppets acting out sections of “The Bacchae” in Greek, as well as enacting moments from the four men’s pasts. Not only does this become egregious when the marionettes perform a horrific bit of abuse culled from Loya’s childhood memories, it’s also slightly misleading as a unifying framework: since it’s the omniscient narration in the Greek tragedies that makes them so wise and instructive, all we have here are the limited points of view of the subjects themselves, and the film lacks a stricter authorial presence. Yet even if Yu is ultimately less interested in the intellectual, philosophical, or the spiritual than the strictly dramatic, her film makes for an engaging look at how we can lie to ourselves even as we search for an elusive truth.
[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot and the managing editor at the Criterion Collection.]