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Required Viewing: Atom Egoyan’s Latest, Adoration

Sci-fi films often ask how future technologies will force us to re-evaluate ourselves. But what do we call a film where current gadgets ask that question about the here and now? That’s one of the questions posed by Atom Egoyan‘s new film, Adoration; hot off the 2008 international film festival circuit, this could be his most quintessential project yet.

That’s both good and bad, since the Canadian filmmaker has always had a sterile approach to cinematography and dialogue, and the performances he’s eeked out of his casts often feel distant from the material. And while Adoration might at times feel more concerned with careful-framing over content, and minimalist art-direction over plot points, many of the themes from his previous projects — cameras and their suspect relationship to human interaction; unspeakable tragedy and its ability to blur the truth — now seem prescient.

In a way, the impersonal applications of You-tube and cell phone video cameras have just now caught up with Egoyan’s earlier technophobe vision, Speaking Parts; while terrorism has made random death see even more chaotic than the traffic accidents that immobilized the celluloid citizens of The Sweet Hereafter or Exotica. In these earlier films, technology and tragedy created barriers between people, whereas Adoration is concerned with how technology binds us to strangers, and how death can inspire new familial ties, which in the end might not be all that different a message than he’s tried to convey before.

The first half of Adoration film throws us a typical Egoyan conundrum worthy of Roman Polanski, where even the sharpest film-going instincts will be dulled by a sequence of events that offer no initial clues about who is telling the truth, or even what exactly it is they’re not telling the truth about.

The mystery revolves around Simon, a distractingly good-looking teen (Devon Bostick) who attends the type of high school Americans imagine Canadians attending — clean, quiet, productive — and who is asked to translate an article for his French class. His version of the text is so gripping that his teacher (Arsinee Khanjian) encourages him to turn it into a dramatic monologue to be presented to the entire class as an exercise.

Yes, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to him either why his French teacher wants him to perform, in English, a supposedly imaginative take on a news piece about a terrorist who tricks his pregnant wife into bringing a bomb on an Israel-bound plane. There are some vague hints that perhaps the article is closer to home than his teacher could ever know — or could she? But then the question of what can be known about Simon’s parents — particularly his father, with his undetermined Middle Eastern background, and an accusation by Simon’s dying granddad that dad was a “killer” — is the heart of the first hour of the picture.

All this is punctuated by a mysterious women in an elaborate hijab who shows up at Simon’s doorstep just before he takes his piece from the classroom to the Internet. Once out in the wild, wild web, it starts the type of dialogue that can only occur online, as victims of terrorism, holocaust survivors, and skinheads — not to mention all of Simon’s friends and teachers who communicate through online video conferences familiar to anyone with a Skype account — engage in the type of hopelessly un-informed and emotionally driven verbal sparring that defines virtual communication.

By the second half, the audience is put in the more comfortable cushiony seats of dramatic irony where the larger truth — now hidden from Simon instead of us — turns out to be far more mundane in scope, but more devastating in the realm of personal tragedy. This is also where the past of the translation-happy French teacher, now relieved of her job for sparking the online flame war, emerges as well as that of Simon’s scruffy tow-truck driving uncle/guardian, played to blue-collar perfection by Scott Speedman.

As with all Egoyan films, the pieces add up — perfectly — but this time we’re left with a post-film conversation that will lean more towards politics and race, rather than the love triangles and crumpled psyches past characters persistently got mangled by. And as much as those earlier films seem fit in with today’s climate, Adoration‘s brand of voyeurism is a more precise commentary on realities experienced through small screens, and opinions formed by death.

Adoration opens in theaters today. Click here to view the trailer.

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