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By James Sweeney | November 21, 2001

Approaching this film I didn’t really know what to expect. The Dogme ’95 manifesto was the set of rules penned by a group of European directors in an attempt to take a “substance over style” approach to filmmaking. “Julian Donkey-Boy” (Dogme #6) by Harmony Korine, the lone American director to attempt to abide by the rules, was a likeable effort. “The Idiots,” though, as only the second Dogme film, was more prototypical and I feared that it would be nothing more than a bunch of cinema verite doc-style portraits of a group of actors cavorting through the streets and acting silly. It wasn’t. Instead, this is a “real” film with multi-layered characters and emotionally involving situations, and I remain profoundly impressed by Von Trier and the revolutionary potential of Dogme.
The Idiots is, in a sense, about a group of actors; some businessmen, some neo-hippies, some with genuine emotional issues who live together communally and venture out frequently into society as a group pretending to be mentally retarded adults. They call this “spazzing.” As insensitive as it sounds, these situations make for some of the funniest scenes Von Trier has ever filmed. On one of the first field trips, the group, having passed themselves off as mentally challenged to the tour guide of a manufacturing plant, prepares to depart. Stoffer, one of the “idiots,” gets behind the wheel and prepares to drive the van. Just the expression on the tour guide’s face as Stoffer erratically “feels” his way out of the parking lot and speeds away is priceless.
Some may take me to task for calling this a funny film. Like Stoffer, the de facto leader of the group, I am unapologetic. However, beyond the hilarity, there are several sobering moments which force the idiots (and us) to reflect on the implications of their actions. One particularly meaningful and developmental scene shows the group encountering an actual group of adults with Down’s Syndrome. And the ending is downright disturbing and yet poignant.
The film intimately explores the motivation of each member of the group as it explores what it means to get in touch with one’s “inner idiot.” As with Von Trier’s earlier, critically acclaimed film “Breaking The Waves,” “The Idiots” also deals with characters exhibiting anti-social behavior with motivations that aren’t easily understood. Both films portray unconventional reactions to tragedy. The “Emily Watson talks to God” scenes in “Breaking The Waves” notwithstanding, “The Idiots” is a little less obfuscating in terms of getting us inside the characters’ heads and allowing us to empathize with the various points of view. Perhaps that’s why I enjoyed it a little more. In any case, The Idiots makes me excited and anxious to see what’s next for both Lars Von Trier and the Dogme ’95 experiment.

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