The opening scenes of “Adoration” play very much like a dream, or more accurately, a memory that’s struggling to resurface through fragmentation and speculation. Even when things start coming together by the middle and end sections, it still seems like it’s trying to remember something based not only on what the characters tell themselves happened, but also on what others say happened. They also have pretty strong opinions on what didn’t happen, although it certainly could have happened. By the end of the film, the audience comes to understand that it’s not at all about what did or didn’t happen, but about the emotional bewilderment that comes with knowing and not knowing. It’s a labyrinthine but engaging plot made up of out-of-sequence flashbacks and flash forwards, and for added weight, it’s all contained under the thematic umbrella of religious intolerance.
No, this movie doesn’t let you off easy. You have to pay attention. You have to think. You have to keep in mind that, in real life, not everything resolves itself. Much of what the audience sees is just as open to interpretation as the characters think it is, which is to say that there’s no reality, only observation. I’m not trying to say that “Adoration” is a confusing mess; I’m saying that it’s a fascinating and deep depiction of people in a confusing mess. It’s also meaningful, although I admit some of the emotional impact is lessened by writer/director Atom Egoyan’s reliance on serendipity, an inherently contrived concept as far as screenplays go. There are connections in this story that seem just a little too well-placed to seem genuine, and that ultimately does more to detach the audience.
Nevertheless, its examinations of people and how they’re perceived make up for the film’s narrative flaws. We’re asked to watch closely as an incredibly coincidental story is gradually revealed. At the end, we’re not asked to accept what we’ve just seen as truth, but as perception. Early on, we’re told about an American woman who married a man from the Middle East. When the woman gets pregnant, the man says he wants nothing to do with her or her child. But then, inexplicably, he comes around. He then talks her into meeting his family in Israel; she flies there by herself, and he claims he’ll meet her there. The fact that a husband isn’t traveling with his pregnant wife makes an airport security guard very suspicious, and when he searches her bag, he finds an explosive device that would have gone off on the next flight.
We’re also told about a teenager named Simon (Devon Bostick), who’s coerced by his French teacher, a Middle Eastern woman named Sabine (Arsinée Khanjian), to read his English translation of the foiled terrorist attack in front of his class. As an added bonus, he must convince his class that his mother was the pregnant woman and his father was the terrorist. His paper ignites a firestorm of Internet chatroom activity, starting with his classmates before spreading to their parents and then to countless others. The responses are passionate, ranging from tirades against Middle Eastern culture to praising Simon’s father for bringing the truth to light. One young woman coaxes her grandmother to walk up to the webcam and reveal her arm, which is tattooed with Holocaust prison numbers; a white supremacist retaliates by revealing his own arm, which is tattooed with the words “Six million lies.”
If Simon’s parents had nothing to do with the attempted terrorist attack, then who exactly are they? More importantly, who is his father? Interwoven all throughout are flashback sequences of Simon’s Middle Eastern father, Sami (Noam Jenkins), and American mother, Rachel (Rachel Blanchard), who we sometimes see rubbing her expanding belly as she stands in front of a suspicious airport security guard in Israel. Tormented by the mysterious nature of their deaths, Simon has been struggling to figure things out since moving in with his uncle, Tom (Scott Speedman), a tow truck driver who tries to ignore the prejudiced teachings of his intolerant father, Morris (Kenneth Welsh). Simon uses his cell phone to film Morris as he lies in a hospital bed, clutching the violin Simon’s mother loved playing ever since she was a little girl.
What is this all leading up to? Is there a point to it all? Yes, although it’s not so much about the actual point as it is about making it. To say anything more specific would be unfair, but I will ask you to consider an interesting scene in which Tom is approached by a woman whose face is concealed by a Burqa. As he sets up a Nativity scene for Christmas, Simon appears and says to the woman that the Jews consider Jesus Christ a prophet. “But not a messiah,” the woman replies, “which is why … they killed him.” There’s more to this moment than meets the eye, but we don’t know it until much later on, when we discover how all the fragmented bits of story fit together. Some bits are so well fitted that they actually detract from the plot, the tension relieved by connections too clever to be plausible. Still, “Adoration” achieves a great deal, both as an analysis of human behavior and an exercise in unconventional editing. Its greatest achievement, however, is telling a story in which perception is more important than reality.