Review: 'Protagonist' an engaging documentary

“Protagonist,” directed by Jessica Yu, examines extremism by presenting an ancient Greek drama alongside modern true stories provided by some terrific talking heads. The latter tales, which feature four men’s personal and political journeys to destructive places, prove especially gripping.

Yu, whose credits include “In the Realm of the Unreal,” serves up a mosaic of fanaticism and obsessiveness in this documentary featuring interviews with four men who personify those traits. Their geographical and economic backgrounds differ, but their personal scenarios — troubled childhoods, an overwhelming desire to be in total control, an extremist gene — link them.

Mark Pierpont, a misfit as a kid, views his homosexuality as sinful and tries to make it vanish by becoming an evangelical missionary.

Joe Loya, having derived a sense of power from stabbing and nearly killing his violent father, becomes a brutal bank robber.

Mark Salzman, a bullied boy, takes up extreme martial arts and studies under a sadistic master.

In Germany, Hans-Joachim Klein, whose father was a Nazi sympathizer, becomes a member of the Revolutionary Cells — the group involved in the violent kidnapping of OPEC ministers and the hijacking at Entebbe.

To cast these stories in a timeless light, Yu inserts snippets of Euripides into the picture. The “tragedy of the extremist” is how she describes the element of the ancient Greek playwright’s work that she aims to capture. Wooden puppets perform this material and dramatize passages from the interviews.

While intriguing, the Greek interludes don’t add much to the picture, and they play weakly when compared with the interviews with the men, who are an eloquent, compelling presence. Fortunately, Yu — whose film brings to mind Errol Morris’ “Fast, Cheap and Out of Control,” but with more consequential people — stays focused largely on her four subjects. Their extraordinary stories make for an engrossing portrait of the extremist mind-set and an affecting and sometimes entertaining look at this mentality in action.

On those notes, the movie contains some terrific bits. Pierpont’s joyful embracing of his homosexuality, after decades of self-loathing, is a kick to witness. Loya’s transformation from hateful criminal to constructive journalist and lecturer is immensely moving. For amusement, there is Salzman’s obsession with David Carradine’s character on the old “Kung Fu” show.

Small but satisfying, “Protagonist” is worth a look.

Protagonist ***

Starring Mark Pierpont, Joe Loya, Mark Salzman, Hans-Joachim Klein

Directed by Jessica Yu

Rated R

Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

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