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October 31, 2003 - Image 72

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 2003-10-31

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At The Movies

A Tragedy Of Assimilation

Starring Anthony Hopkins as a black man posing as a Jew, "The Human Stain"
is the first Philip Roth novel to come to the big screen since "Portnoy's Complaint."


Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles

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l hen veteran producer Tom Rosenberg
read Philip Roth's 2000 novel, The
Human Stain, he immediately vowed
to turn it into a movie. Roth, one of
America's greatest living writers, was his literary
hero; the novelist "not only chronicles what it is to
be Jewish in America, he chronicles America,"
Rosenberg, 56, said.
Stain dissects the politically correct zeitgeist
Rosenberg detests. Set during the 1998 Clinton-
Lewinsky scandal, the hero is Coleman Silk, an
aging classics professor who is accused of making a
racist remark and is targeted by a PC witch hunt.
In the aftermath, he befriends a reclusive writer,
begins a scandalous affair with a young janitor and
reveals a secret: He's actually a light-skinned black
man "passing" as Jewish.
While many of Roth's previous novels skewer
assimilating American Jewry, The Human Stain
explores the consequence of a more radical kind of
The story intrigued Rosenberg because he, too, has expe-
rienced the "stain" of otherness and the tension between
social expectations and personal identity.
Even after his mother, a Protestant, converted to
Judaism, he overheard his grandmother derisively refer

Nicole Kidman as Faunia Farley and Anthony Hopkins as Professor Coleman Silk in "The Human Stain."


The Jewish experience is peripheral in adaptation of Roth novel.

Special to the Jewish News

ike a Tiffany snow globe, The Human
and its main cnaracter — are
impeccably put together and
implacably inaccessible.
Philip Roth's novel, adapted by screen-
writer Nicholas Meyer and directed by
Robert Benton (Kramer vs. Kramer), reaches the
screen as a muted tragedy of assimilation.
However, what its central character has lost --- or
abandoned — is intangible, ephemeral and, in fact,
barely discernible. So it follows, as winter must suc-
ceed fall, the film is devoid of emotional impact.
The Jewish intellectual Coleman Silk (the arch
Anthony Hopkins) is an esteemed classics professor
at an upscale New England college. In the movie's
opening scenes, he resigns his post in a fury when
he's accused of racism.



Jewish viewers will be tipped off by Silk's mispro-
nunciation of "chutzpah" at the contentious faculty
meeting --- he begins the word with a benign "h"
instead of the guttural "ch" — and wonder if his
character is really Jewish. The rest of the audience
will catch on 20 minutes later when the
screenplay reveals that Silk is, in fact,
Silk's backstory is told in flashbacks that
comprise the movie's most resonant scenes. As a
light-skinned high-school boxer, he's advised to say
nothing about his ethnic identity. He'll probably be
perceived as Jewish, his boxing coach says with a
laugh -- and although the movie eventually reveals
why Silk decided to pass for white, this throwaway
remark is the only hint why he chose to pretend
that he was a Jew for his entire adult life.
It's a dark joke that Roth devised, although the
movie certainly finds no humor in it. If a black
man wished to blend into mainstream society in the

younger school custodian
aiso running from h

contemporary American-,
bridge the class divide more ease
that positions The Human Stain,
manners without the laughs.
More importantly, Silk's late-in-life affair tgltes
recklessness that's the diametric opposite of the con-
trol and calculation he's brought to bear on the pre-
vious 40 years of his life.
Silk's confidant — and the film's narrator - is a
younger novelist named Nathan Zuckerman (Gary
Sinise), who is, presumably, an assimila.ted. Jew. It's
hard to imagine two actors less believable as Jewish
characters than Hopkins and Sinise, which robs the
movie of a crucial verisimilitude.
We watch. The Human Stain as if it were set in an
alternate Hollywood universe, not a recognizable
society where real people wrestle with ghosts, ambi-
tions and the truth.
Of course, the casting is meant to underscore that


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