Is there a constant battle between good and evil? Does the Devil test our faith? And is it possible for one man's faith to change another man's heart? These questions are at the heart of Adam's Apples, by Danish director Anders Thomas Jensen. Adam (Ulrich Thomsen), a middle-aged Neo Nazi, comes to a rural Danish church to serve out a sentence of community service. The church is run by Ivan (Mads Mikkelsen), the vicar, who confounds Adam from the start with his cheerful, patient optimism and bottomless faith. Adam soon realizes there is more to Ivan than meets the eye, though; Ivan is not just a man of faith, he believes he is constantly being tested by the devil. Ivan tells Adam to set a goal for himself for his time at the church, and when Adam offhandedly says he will bake an apple pie, Ivan assigns him to caring for the church's apple tree until the fruit is ready.
As the apple tree is beset by ravaging crows, maggots, and lightning, Ivan tells Adam the devil is testing him. Adam gets increasingly frustrated by Ivan's unwavering faith, until a local doctor, Dr. Kohlberg (played with just the right touch of ominence by Ole Thestrup), tells him of Ivan's background. Ivan, it seems, is unable to see bad or evil things. He has had so many bad things happen to him - horrific sexual abuse as a child, a handicapped child, the suicide of his wife) his mind simply blocks out everything he cannot deal with, including the huge brain tumor in his head. Adam notices that when he pushes Ivan to get closer to the truth, Ivan bleeds from his ear, so he asks the doctor whether it would be possible to kill Ivan simply by making him see reality. Adam and Ivan end up locked in a battle for Ivan's soul and his faith, while the apple tree continues to be attacked - by God, the devil, or just bad luck, we don't really know.
Adam's Apples is an intricately drawn parable about good, evil, faith and redemption. Adam says he is evil and beyond the ability to change. You can't help but feel that his quest to force Ivan to face reality in all its ugliness is as much about validating himself as it is about breaking his foil. Ivan challenges Adam's belief in himself as an evil person, and without the tags of evilness and blind hatred, Adam does not know who he is. Ivan's belief in Adam's ability to change his heart forces Adam to question himself and his past, and the beliefs he has held for so long. Adam knows nothing but violence and hate; Ivan turns the other cheek repeatedly and complacently, even when Adam beats him so badly his nose is smashed and ruined. The only thing that seems to set Ivan off is having his view of the world, and the things he refuses to see, questioned. When Adam pushes Ivan too far, he finds himself confronted with a battle between good and evil, and sees the consequences of his hatred clearly for the first time.
Excellent performances by Thomsen and Mikkelson bookend this excellent film, which is the official Danish submission the Academy Awards for Best Film in a Foreign Language. Thomsen creates tension, Mikkelson diffuses it, in a constant back-and-forth that is a metaphorical struggle for both men's souls. Thestrup, as a the malevolent doctor, serves almost as a devil's advocate, encouraging Adam to push Ivan to face reality, even if it means killing him. The underlying question is whether it is actually evil for Ivan to be living in this state of total denial of reality, and it he should be forced to see the truth, even it it means sacrificing his life in the process. Some excellent supporting characters bolster Thomsen and Mikkelson: Khalid (Ali Kazim), a Pakastani who robs gas stations, Gunnar (Nicolas Bro), an overweight, alcoholic former tennis champ, and Sarah (Paprika Steen), an alcoholic, sexually addicted woman carrying a baby who might be born handicapped.
Jensen handles the subject of good and evil in a unique and fasicinating way in this film. A tightly woven script, passionate performances, and some beautiful cinematography, all blend together to create a deeply moving and thoughtful story that simultaneously questions faith and makes you believe in its power. Will Ivan's deeply-rooted faith that God is on his side ultimately pull him through, or will Adam succeed in breaking him? Will Adam retain the evil and hatred he has nurtured so long at the very core of his being, or will Ivan triumph in showing him he can remake himself fresh, and put the past behind him? As the film goes along, one starts to question one's own assumptions about faith and perseverance, the nature of good and evil, and whether evil can ever be truly redeemed.