Friday, January 16, 2009

The story fascinates, but the film doesn't

"Defiance" is one of those year-end prestige pictures that opened in New York and Los Angeles in late December, and now is beginning to trickle around the country. Director Edward Zwick's look at the Bielski partisans -- Jewish renegades who hid in the forests of Belarus and fought the Nazis during World War II -- depicts raids on Nazi sympathizers and on Nazi soldiers. It also turns the Bielskis into protectors, heroes who assist weaker members of the Jewish population, although reluctantly at first. Zwick ("Glory," "The Last Samurai," and "Blood Diamond") has a taste for stories made with obvious conviction. "Defiance" is no exception.

In case fighting Germans weren't enough to keep one movie busy, Zwick augments the drama by focusing on a dispute between two of the Bielski brothers -- both tough guys, but each with a particular approach to fighting. Daniel Craig's Tuvia Bielski fights with a sense of responsibility. He's wary of becoming as brutal as the monsters he opposes. Liev Schreiber plays Zus Bielski, a hardliner who eventually joins with the Russians (many of them anti-Semitic) because he's less interested in justice than in avenging the death of his wife and child. Zus accuses his brother of not having the stomach to "do what must be done;" i.e., snuff out compassion for the sake of survival and combat.

Jamie Bell portrays another Bielski brother, as does George McKay, but the story mostly alternates between the exploits of Tuvia and Zus, contrasting life in the forest with life among Russian soldiers. Late in the movie, Tuvia puts down an insurrection in his ranks, a one-man revolt trigged by an argument about whether those who fight should be allotted more food than those who are unable to wield weapons.

A better film would have made the argument between the Bielski brothers feel more alive; it would have gotten under our skins rather than stating positions and moving on with the narrative. It would have involved us in the harrowing choices they faced rather than leaving us to watch from the outside. The film's strongest moment arrives with the killing of a captured German soldier who becomes the focal point for the community's long-suppressed rage. Tuvia watches, knowing that even if he disapproves, he can't -- and perhaps shouldn't -- stop this expression of fury.

The mysteries of the Polish forest elude Zwick, and his dialogue tends toward robust exclamation: We will become warriors fighting for our freedom and such. It's arguable that a movie such as "Defiance" doesn't require subtlety, but it could have used some, if only to counteract the blatancy of a James Newton Howard's score that augments a mournful violin with the occasional swelling of noble strings.

Perhaps Zwick was the wrong filmmaker to tell this story. Consider the film's ending, a triumphant sequence in which Zwick binds himself to the most conspicuous of Hollywood conventions. I won't give anything away, but the finale looks as if it might have been torn from the yellowed pages of a pulp Western. It's pure cliche. And with actors speaking Polish with English accents, it's not easy to forget we're watching a movie version of real events rather than a story that mixes rare courage with incomparable tragedy.

The story of the Bielskis provides us with an intriguing footnote to Holocaust history. But it is a footnote, not a revelation. A title card at the end tells us that the Bielskis saved 1,200 Jews, a worthy achievement and something for which we surely can be grateful, but this number has little to do with the enormity of the event against which it must be measured.

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