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Dogville: This is a test hed here for the Dogville story

Saddam Hussein has been nabbed. Slobodan Milosevic is defending himself in The Hague. But to the dismay of many moviegoers, Denmark's Lars von Trier is still free.

The director's past offenses include making martyrs of Emily Watson in "Breaking the Waves" and Bjork in "Dancer in the Dark," and fools of the Danish bourgeoisie in "The Idiots," movies that thwacked virtue and devotion with a

crowbar. "Dogville" is another round of brazen disrespect from cinema's baddest boy. But the movie, despite its ultimate nuttiness, has a quiet, consuming power that sneaks up on you and doesn't go away. This is something new and ambitious for Von Trier: a work of compassion.

That, of course, is relative: Compassion for him is akin to a bully rolling up his sleeves and washing his hands before blackening your eye. The movie doesn't

mock its heroine, whom Nicole Kidman plays with cunning innocence; it loathes the simple, exploiting folk (including Ben Gazzara, Lauren Bacall, and Stellan Skarsgard) around her. In von Trier's estimation, they effectively represent such conjured-up American values as complacency and hypocrisy. Broken into chapters, "Dogville" is set in an isolated, Depression-era mining town -- so says our English narrator, whose creamy intonations belong to John Hurt. But the tone he sets is so rich with doom that his voice may as well be Vincent Price's, and it remains with us for the movie's three hours.

He tells us what a disjointed community Dogville is, with a little over a dozen adults and several children living there. What he doesn't explain, however, is what happened to the walls.

In a move that might call to mind Thornton Wilder, or Bertolt Brecht, the production is a bare-bones affair. The houses barely have walls or windows. When the actors open doors, they mime the action, while the opening and closing sounds come from off-screen. The set is a sound stage with props, and the names of people's homes are stenciled onto the black floor as though the town were a blueprint.

Into this minimalism comes Grace (Kidman), a wraith of a woman wearing a dark coat trimmed with fur. Discovered by Tom Edison (Paul Bettany), Dogville's young idealist, she says she's on the run from mobsters. He tries to convince the others that she should be sheltered: Her life is in danger, and offering a haven is the good (read: Christian) thing to do. When the police appear, looking for her as well, Tom's task becomes that much more difficult.

Eventually the townsfolk concede. Hilariously, they want both proof of her goodness and of their charitability. In a sincere desire to thank them, Grace persuades them to let her do work that would otherwise go undone. Her employment starts as a conundrum and becomes a nightmarish indentured servitude. The town becomes plump with self-satisfaction and entitlement.

Housecleaning, gardening, and baby-sitting mutate into gossip and eventually rape, both sexual and social. The shift in dynamics gradually unites the once-disconnected town against the bewildered, overworked, and unpaid Grace, who never stops trying to prove her worth.

As the cops close in and certain Dogvillians craving the cash reward being offered for Grace's surrender, the film reaches a chilling point of moral backwardness. The harder she works and the more that is demanded of her, the more brutal the townspeople become.

The dog in Dogville is a tidy, if obvious, disfigurement of God, and an echo of von Trier's "Dogma 95" cinematic commandments. "Dogville" is a comedy, a farce, a soap opera, a tragedy, and a social-realist thriller that imagines itself a fable of American greed and Christian contradiction.

Yes, during the Fourth of July picnic, it's true that the little American flag hangs over the town like the blade of a guillotine, but the story is too opaque to be mere propaganda. And its transparencies are an illusion: The artificial homes suggest a town of glass houses where someone, long ago, cast the first stone.

"Dogville" treads difficult ideological ground that leaves it open to interpretation. You might find the film contemptible, particularly toward the jokey end. (You wouldn't be alone.) The movie, though, is also the work of someone so hopped up on hunches, ideas, and education that it's impossible to see the mind for the man. Von Trier's America is a refraction of the social-realist wing of other artists' America -- Sherwood Anderson, John Dos Passos, Shirley Jackson, and, especially, Sinclair Lewis. So America exists as a notion, as it must: Von Trier has never been here.

And from these ideas he builds a great allegory, equipped for scandal. Grace could be Dorothy in Oz, Alice in Wonderland, Jesus of Nazareth, the Hottentot Venus, and the illegal immigrant of your choosing, each lashed to a Socialist revenge plot. Contemplation and a flourish of rationality replace the unruly potency of "The Idiots" and "Dancer in the Dark": "Dogville" is not as emotionally visceral as those movies. This is a tea party by comparison: distant, exacting, measured for brutality.

In the closing credits, though, von Trier's politics get the worst of him. He slips from behind allegorical make-believe and gives a real piece of his mind. It's unclean. Von Trier puts himself in the company of many a naive European documentary-maker, eager to teach us moviegoers a lesson about poverty. But trotting historical images of suffering is callous, self-serving, and politically hollow. Last-minute agitprop doesn't suit him. Deranged fables do.

Wesley Morris can be reached at

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