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Piercing issues of faith

Special to The Times

Pitched somewhere between religious parable and slapstick, the black-hearted satire “Adam’s Apples” has something important to say about the nature of redemption. Or perhaps it just wants to seem like it does. Like his countryman Lars von Trier, the Danish writer-director Anders Thomas Jensen mixes spiritual inquiry with shell game, never quite tipping his hand as to what’s sincere and what’s said with a smirk.

Although he first made his name in this country as the writer of several films in the stripped-down Dogme 95 movement, Jensen’s favored directorial mode is black comedy, highly stylized and spattered with blood. In a time when issues of faith are often addressed with a knee-jerk solemnity that precludes real soul-searching, Jensen’s boldness and even his willingness to shock are refreshing. But the movie is all surface, loudly clamoring for attention and then losing its voice.

Set at a church where ex-convicts are working off the last of their jail time, “Adam’s Apples” boils down to the conflict between Adam (Ulrich Thomsen), a sour-faced neo-Nazi with a shaved head and imposing frame, and Ivan (Mads Mikkelsen), the punctilious preacher tasked with helping his law-breaking charges see the light.

The other lost souls in Ivan’s care include a South Asian bank robber (Ali Kazim), a rotund former tennis champion (Nicolas Bro) and a pregnant woman (an underused Paprika Steen) struggling to decide whether to abort a child who may be born deformed. Unfortunately for them, Ivan can’t see his own problems clearly, let alone theirs. If they’re seeking guidance, they’ve come to the wrong house of God.

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In his sweater vests and strappy sandals, Ivan is a figure of deliberate fun, a blithe sky pilot whose hopefulness is unfettered by logic.

He rests steadfast in his belief that his parishioners are on the right path, even when his supposedly reformed robber turns up in possession of a ski mask and a mysterious wad of cash. “If we all listened to reason,” he avers, “the world would be a gloomy place.”

Although Ivan believes that Satan’s temptations are never-ending, he’s more likely to see the devil’s handiwork in a hand burned on a hot stove than in the human tragedies that cling to him like barnacles. He recasts his wife’s suicide as an accidental death and maintains that his son’s crippling palsy is merely a nasty bout of the flu, taking refuge in a Bee Gees tape when the cruelties of the world press too hard.

Jensen suggests that Ivan’s mildly psychotic optimism is tantamount to an inability to recognize evil. When Adam points out that the picture on his wall is a portrait of Hitler, Ivan responds, “No, it’s not -- Hitler had a beard.” But Mikkelsen, last seen shedding blood from his tear ducts in “Casino Royale,” gives Ivan dignity in his denial and never allows his determination to be played for glib laughs. (Too bad Jensen has no such scruples.)

It’s clear from the onset that Jensen means for the battle between Adam and Ivan to have allegorical weight. He loads the movie with self-conscious symbols, like the moldering apple tree in the church’s courtyard and a Bible that keeps falling open to the book of Job. Even the character’s names hint at bottomless significance: Adam, for the first man, and Ivan, for the skeptical Karamazov brother.

The trouble is there’s no coherence to the way Jensen deploys his overdetermined signifiers. He’s happy to help himself to the trappings of allegory but unwilling to apply them with any rigor. If you’re hunting life’s big mysteries, you shouldn’t do it with a shotgun.

“Adam’s Apples.” MPAA rating: R for language and violence. Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes. In Danish with English subtitles. Exclusively at Laemmle’s Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills (310) 274-6869; One Colorado, 42 Miller Alley (inside plaza, Fair Oaks at Union Ave.), Pasadena (626) 744-1224.


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