Sunday, January 4, 2009

Defiance *1/2

Director: Edward Zwick
Cast: Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, Jamie Bell
George MacKay, Mark Feuerstein, Alexa Davalos, Tomas Arana
Allan Corduner, Iddo Goldberg

With "Defiance" Edward Zwick proves there isn't a sociopolitical event he can't trivialize.
Set during the Nazi occupation of West Belarus during World War II, it tells the story of the Bielski brothers, who fled to the local forests after their family was murdered, where they formed a resistance that fought the invaders and eventually rescued 1,200 Jews.
Problems rise between the people as they must form an informal community while escaping the ever threatening Nazi soldiers.
Craig as older brother Tuvia and Schreiber as Zus give the film a respectable feel as they reflect sibling problems while giving convincing performances.
Craig does tough, sensitive guy like few people and there's no amount of moving disdain that Schreiber's grin can't muster, but the rest of the actors are just there to fill their Holocaust movie character quota.
The usually charming Feuerstein plays the "intellectual" who argues with the spiritual guy (Corduner) in random scenes that feel contrived and naive.
"Defiance" does get its action scenes right though, Eduardo Serra's cinematography gets you right in the battles and the film perhaps should've embraced its shallowness and play out like a romantic version of the Bielski saga as over the top heroism.
The film is worth a look if only as a reminder that the Jews didn't react passively during the Holocaust, as Hollywood has constantly tried to make us believe; they fought back and strove hard for survival.
In this raw desperation to keep alive we find the film's most compelling moments; watching dozens of people share the same plate of food, fight for it when they don't have it and face the moment when they have to shoot someone for the first time, makes for an affecting experience.
One that Zwick isn't aware he is creating, because he reduces everything to every Holocaust cliché we've seen.
Grandiose speeches before an important battle? Check.
Cold blooded murder justified because the lead actor commits it? Check.
Sudden romantic interests in the midst of annihilation? Check.
Dismissal of laws, stressed throughout as being unbreakable, just because someone's heart is warmed? Check.
The list goes on and on as Zwick turns the Bielskis into Charlton Heston in "The Ten Commandments" (he even has them "part" a body of water).
When one of the characters points out the irony that they are being attacked in the eve of Passover, we don't link this fact with actual historical accuracy but with Zwick's need to over dramatize everything.
Then he goes as far as making all the plot work just so the brothers will resolve rivalry issues and bond in a slightly homoerotic embrace once it's all over.
"Your Jewish sentimentality is heartwarming, but counter-revolutionary" warns officer Ben Zion (Arana) to Zus who has left his camp to fight in the front with the Russians.
Zwick's film isn't smart enough to be subversive and its kind of sentimentality (complete with real pictures of the Bielskis during the end credits) is disrespectful because instead of making us sit in awe about such an admirable deed it mostly just makes us want to look away.

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