I saw this on its cinema release in 2016 and posted this review to Facebook then. I recently found it on SBS On Demand and watched it again. Scarily, I had no memory of having seen it first time round!
When I was at university in the early seventies we all read ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’, Philip Roth’s funny/sad book about Jewish families and frustrated youthful horniness. The boys all gleefully identified with the central character’s furious masturbation habit, which probably explains why the line they all remember is when young Alexander Portnoy, looking for a way to, er, offload, comes across some raw liver in the fridge and, as he shamefully admits: ‘I f**cked my family’s lunch’.
Me being a sensitive lass (unlike those barbarous boys), the image that stuck in my mind was Alexander’s constipated father, forever on the toilet, gradually lapsing into quiet despair, helpless against the indignities of his ailing body. I found this image ineffably pitiable and poignant.
Philip Roth is a famously autobiographical writer, and in ‘Indignation’, the film version of a more recent novel, he revisits the landscapes, both psychological and physical, of his youth. Roth grew up in New Jersey, and so does Marcus Messner, the central character in ‘Indignation’. Marcus is the bright son of a kosher butcher, headed for his first year in college. Like Portnoy, it has the same central theme of sexual awakening, the same loving but angst-ridden Jewish parents constantly plaguing their only son with their anxiety about the dangers that lurk in the hostile outside world.
Despite this, ‘Indignation’ is a more serious story than Portnoy, which is essentially a comic novel tinged with pathos. Alexander Portnoy is a gormless ingenue who lusts after shiksas – the WASPy blonde girls whose aloofness and unattainability is a constant torment to his ferocious sexual desire. In ‘Indignation’, young Marcus is not totally gormless: he’s a brilliant student and has all the arrogant certainty of youth about such matters as religion, philosophy and politics. What he’s not certain about, because he has no experience, is what sex does or should mean, and when a beautiful young shiksa gives him a blow job on their first and only date, he’s shocked, confused and conflicted. His discombobulation has grave consequences.
Philip Roth’s novels have a reputation for being unfilmable, because they are essentially psychological reportage dealing with the life of the mind (notwithstanding that movie versions of ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’ and ‘Goodbye Columbus’ both did reasonable box office). I wouldn’t recommend this movie to anyone who likes action and/or fast-paced narrative. But sensitive, bookish souls (like me?) will love it.