The Good: Acting, Characters, Story, Music, Cinematography
The Bad: Pacing issues at the beginning.
The Basics: An amazing cinematic achievement, Defiance is beautiful to the eye and ear and is troubling to the soul as a story of Jewish survivors in Russia during World War II.
It takes a lot for me to consider a film, truly great and lately, it has been harder for me to find films that I feel that passionately about on the first viewing. But tonight, I screened a film that easily fits the bill and it is unfortunate it has been released so early in the year, when most people will likely have forgotten about it by next year's Oscars voting. The film is Defiance and it is the first real gem of 2009.
I suppose it is worth noting going in that I had no notion of what the film was about and I'm not big on Holocaust movies. I've learned so much about the World War II Holocaust against the Jewish people that it takes a lot to get me into a mood to see a movie dealing with the holocaust. Defiance is a rare treat in cinematography: it is a film set in Russia during World War II, focusing on Jewish survivors and as a result, this is not one of the movies that attempts to capture or recreate the concentration camps. Instead, it is focused on the Russian survival instinct and the resiliency of the Russian Jews. If anyone wanted the perfect combination of a holocaust film and a Russian war epic, Defiance might well be it. Think Life Is Beautiful (without the crazy) meets Doctor Zhivago (reviewed here!).
In 1941, as the Nazis invaded Poland and Bellarus, four brothers - the Bielskis - fled into a forest that they knew well. Accustomed to fleeing the police there when their parents ran a smuggling operation, Tuvia, Zus, and the younger brothers Asael and Aron, evade the Nazi patrols and disappear into the woods. Camped out for a few days, they soon get hungry and need supplies. Aided by a loyal friend of the family, Tuvia is given food, but also a few families of Jewish people who are also fleeing the Nazis to take with him. Disgusted by the sudden dependents, Zus bids for power within the small camp and to keep them safe and not live in his brother's shadow, Zus joins the Red Army in fighting the Nazis around the woods.
As winter comes in 1941, Tuvia works with the many Jews who find their way to the camp to create a community. When the ghettos are liquidated (i.e. all of the Jews there are being slaughtered) Tuvia organizes a rescue and soon their camp has hundreds of people. Surviving the harsh winter is bad enough, but dealing with low food supplies, power-hungry younger people and the threats of both the Nazis and the Soviet army keep Tuvia and his brothers struggling to keep as many people alive as possible.
The brilliance of Defiance, arguably one of the few "instant classics" in recent times, is that the film is remarkably multifaceted. This is a survival story, yes, but it is also about maintaining the balance between the needs of the community and the strength of the individual. Rivals for control of the camp rise and Tuvia must deal with them. He works to establish laws and then struggles to enforce them. As a result, the film is careful not to make Tuvia a flawless, idealized hero. He gets angry, he murders, he sits back and lets others do horrible things. In other words, he is human.
But the strength of the character - who is based upon a real life Tuvia Bielski who did start camps in the woods to save Jews during World War II - is in his humanity. To save the greatest number of people, he asserts his dominance when necessary and when possible, he appeases the intellectuals by talking about the community that is being formed by the Jews in the woods. He is careful to insure that survival is not the only about living, but about having beliefs that one holds true to. This distinction becomes what Defiance is truly about and the film is smart enough to illustrate the conflicts in a realistic light.
As a result, collaborators with the Nazis are shown to be people who are trying to survive the occupation the only way they know how and the Jewish characters are not treated as unflinchingly good. Instead, they menace one another at times and there are dangerous people even in the safety of the camp in the woods.
Defiance was adapted for screen by Clayton Frohman and director Edward Zwick. Zwick, the socially conscious mind that brought us Blood Diamond is smart and careful to preserve the realism of the concept of survival and the many facets of what that entails instead of simply painting the rosy picture of people who become great in the worst possible crisis. No, characters like Tuvia fall and the joy of experiencing Defiance is watching his learning curve.
Defiance is difficult to watch at several points, but not for the usual holocaust film "big death scene" reasons. Instead, as the film slowly develops over the first year of the Bielski resistance and camp, Tuvia makes difficult decisions, sometimes with who loves and who dies. He falls ill and watching the scenes where others take advantage of the weakness of his health are understandably painful.
Still, there is a clever balance maintained, sometimes even within a scene. Zwick plays a wedding - Asael and Chaya, who have obvious chemistry find some happiness together - against a military raid between Zus's battalion and a German convoy. The contrast is stark and filmed in a way that is absolutely beautiful. Moreover, the score - by Joshua Bell - plays off the cinematography in such a way that it is easy to watch (stylistically) all that comes up in Defiance.
As well, the acting is phenomenal. Liev Schreiber plays Zus as quietly jealous until he erupts, Jamie Bell has an unwavering goodness in his portrayal of Asael, and Alexa Davalos is the embodiment of strong as Lilka (Tuvia's romantic interest). Young performers like Mia Wasikowska vie perfectly for attention on the screen with the likes of Mark Feuerstein and Tomas Arana.
But it is Daniel Craig who sells Defiance as Tuvia. Strong in a way that he was not allowed to be in the role of James Bond (i.e. strong, but deeply human), Craig evokes pathos with each tough decision his character is compelled to make. Craig is adept at acting with only his eyes and the slouching of his shoulders in several scenes and it works masterfully for the story and the character. His performance is the type awards are rightfully given for.
And in the end Defiance is exactly the type of film that deserves to be seen: the story ought to be told and this history should not be lost. And with characters, performances and effects (musical and visual) as incredible as in Defiance history comes alive and is enduring.
For other works Edward Zwick is associated with, be sure to check out my reviews of:
i am sam
Once And Again - Season 1
Once And Again - Season 2
Love And Other Drugs
For other film reviews, please check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2012, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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