Monday, January 19, 2009

A Moving History Lesson

The year is 1941 and the Jews of Eastern Europe are being massacred by the thousands. Managing to escape certain death, three brothers take refuge in the dense surrounding woods they have known since childhood. There they begin their desperate battle against the Nazis. At first it is all they can do to stay alive. But gradually, as whispers of their daring spreads, they begin to attract others – men and women, young and old – willing to risk everything for the sake of even a moment’s freedom.

Most movies about the Holocaust rightfully depict Jews as victims of the genocidal terror that spewed forth from the Nazi regime. After all, 6 million dead provides plenty of tragic material. But relentless tales of stoic suffering can also help create a culture of victimhood, which is why films like Defiance are a nice change of pace within the litany of "never-forget" stories. Without neglecting the ultimate horror of those years, the film presents a tangible example of potential victims fighting against their oppressors and even achieving victory. And, better yet, it's based on a true story.The story opens in 1941, as the Germans have overrun the country, 50,000 Jews have been arrested and thousands more summarily executed, including the parents of the Bielski brothers -- Tuvia (Daniel Craig), Zus (Liev Schreiber), Asael (Jamie Bell) and Aron (George MacKay). Escaping into a dense part of the national forest that the two older brothers know well from their time spent hiding out from the law, they form a partisan band to avenge their parents' deaths, fight the occupation and eliminate Belorussian collaborators who support it. In time, more endangered Jewish families find their way to the Bielskis' protection, and the hidden forest camp is gradually transformed into a small town with its own underground housing, a hospital, metal shop, bakery, theater and synagogue. But this "Jerusalem in the Woods" is soon split between Tuvia, whose concern is rescuing Jews and keeping the community safe, and Zus, who's obsessed with revenge and wants to join their band with the (anti-Semitic) Soviet partisans. Meanwhile, the Nazis are closing in. But while it works as a rousing historical footnote, Defiance also rises above this specific intention to be an absorbing family saga, a thrilling combat movie and a backwoods epic that conveys the feel of a frontier-community-under-duress with the vividness of a John Ford classic. And though it's primarily a character-driven drama, it powers along as a genre war picture with a visually offbeat location (the woods of Lithuania), more than a half-dozen expertly paced and executed battle sequences and some of the most realistic CGI augmentation of any action movie of the past year. While the large British and American cast is never completely convincing as Belarussians, the acting is sincere and compelling -- and Craig anchors the movie nicely with his charismatic portrayal of a mostly peaceful leader who occasionally rises to a violent occasion with a pleasing touch of "blunt instrument" James Bond bravado. The two older siblings differ in their tactical approaches. The hotheaded Zus believes the only way to win is to match the Nazis in ferocity, targeting civilians if necessary and taking no prisoners. Tuvia, his elder, counsels a more restrained approach. It's a meaningful conflict and shows that Defiance isn't interested in painting its protagonists as innocents. The Bielskis were criminals before the war, a fact briefly acknowledged, and some of the same skills that allowed them to prosper as thugs makes them ideal partisans. A strong 4 on my "Go See" scale.

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