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DEFIANCE(director/writer: Edward Zwick; screenwriters: Clayton Frohman/based on the book “Defiance: The Bielski Partisans” by Nechama Tec; cinematographer: Eduardo Serra; editor: Steven Rosenblum; music: James Newton Howard; cast: Daniel Craig (Tuvia Bielski), Liev Schreiber (Zus Bielski), Jamie Bell (Asael Bielski), Mark Feuerstein (Isaac Malbin), Allan Corduner (Shimon Haretz), Jodhi May (Tamara Skidelsky), Mia Wasikowska (Chaya Dziencielsky), Sam Spruell (Arkady Lubczanski), Alexa Davalos (Lilka Ticktin), Kate Fahy (Riva Reich), Tomas Arana (Ben Zion Gulkowitz), Iddo Goldberg (Yitzhak Shulman), Iben Hjejle (Bella), Jonjo O’Neill (Lazar), Ravil Isyanov (Viktor Panchenko), George MacKay (Aron Bielski), Martin Hancock (Peretz Shorshaty, Jewish lout), Rolandas Boravskis (Gramov); Runtime: 136; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Edward Zwick/Pieter Jan Brugge; Paramount Vantage; 2008)
“Comes off as flat as latkes.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Edward Zwick (“Glory”/”The Siege”/”Blood Diamond”) helms this amazing little known WWII true war drama about three brave Jewish brothers who create a commune of over 1500 Jewish stragglers (at the end of the war, the Bielski brothers saved the lives of 1200 in their forest camp, in the dense Naliboki Forest, after two years on the run) and live as warriors in the forest of their anti-Semitic Eastern European homeland of Belorussia after the Nazis killed their farmer peasant parents in August 1941. It shows that some Jews fought their captors and were willing to die in battle for their freedom, contrary to the thinking of some that all Jews just meekly capitulated without a fight.

It gambles by starring the Anglo-Saxon blue-eyed James Bond portrayer Daniel Craig to play Jewish and the problem is that’s a reach by any stretch of the imagination considering he doesn’t look the part, but he’s such a fine thesp that he handsomely pulls it off despite the further obstacle of a weak script. It’s scripted by Zwick and Clayton Frohman, and is based on the book “Defiance: The Bielski Partisans” by Nechama Tec. Though finely shot (filmed in Lithuania) and acted (especially by Liev Schreiber’s determined physical performance) and projecting an appropriate mournful mood for the haunting story with somber Joshua Bell background violin music, it was filmed by-the-numbers and comes off as flat as latkes. It has the conventional look and feel of your typical John Wayne action pic, which deadens the effects of the powerful true survival story that never becomes the epic it kvells to become.

The three Bielski brothers–the sensitive oldest Tuvia (Daniel Craig), the fiery middle one Zus (Liev Schreiber), and the gentle youngest one Asael (Jamie Bell)–band together in the woods to survive the marauding Nazis bent on rounding up all Jews for the camps. The locals hunt Jews for the bounty money and the local collaborators do all they can to help the outsider ruling Nazis to gain favor with them. Tuvia and Zus are married smugglers sporting a classic Freudian sibling rivalry; they further despair when they learn from new camp arrivals that the Nazis killed their wives. To get revenge for their parents’ death, Tuvia kills the anti-Semitic police chief responsible for slaughtering his parents in his home and also kills his two sons while sparring his sobbing wife.

With blood on his hands, Tuvia renounces further revenge missions as not helpful to their survival. Zus, on the other hand, wants to kill as many Nazis as possible and eliminate local collaborators and convinces his brother to form the Bielski Otriad. In a guerrilla raid the brothers take out some collaborators and Nazis, and recoup their weapons but lose a few warriors. Their rep as fighters grows as the Bielski Otriad become feared in the villages, and Jews fleeing in bunches join the remote camp. Which brings to the camp some fighters, intellectuals, mostly frightened souls too weak to do much and love interests for the three brothers (Alexa Davalos for Tuvia, Iben Hjejle for Zus and Mia Wasikowska for Asael).

The differing brothers go their separate ways after getting into a fist fight over Tuvia’s leadership of the camp. With Zus and his warrior followers becoming a partisan force fighting under the protection of the anti-Semitic Soviet People’s Army leader (Ravil Isyanov), who also live in the woods but are well-equipped to carry out raids against the German forces. In the meantime Asael matures overnight and stays with Tuvia to build their hidden commune in the woods that will have a nursery, a hospital and school, and the defiant ones aim to not be avengers but survivors. As a mitzveh, Asael and Tuvia go into the Belarus ghetto to recruit the helpless Jewish city dwellers to join their remote commune. Some in the ghetto prefer to follow their leaders and choose the death camps as a better chance to survive the Holocaust.

The second part of the film falters, as it turns into your typical Hollywood action pic and loses the good will created in the first half when it seemed it might have something special going on. What follows are a number of standard issue critical situations that include Tuvia’s leadership challenged by a lout (Martin Hancock), who he is forced to kill when he sabotages his command; the harsh winter forces starvation and illness, and calls for some radical thinking to survive; Tuvia has second thoughts about his leadership ability, until he gives a “We’re not animals” speech to rally the community together; Zus is conflicted over staying with the Red Army, where his men face anti-Semitism, or returning to the camp with his brothers; there’s a Nazi aerial attack; and Tuvia is depicted as the Moses in Exodus, who must lead his people to the Promised Land. None of the action scenes measure up to much, and the film sinks into mediocrity when attempting to get to any of the psychological dramatics with any edge, profundity or resonance. When compared to great artistic moving war dramas covering the same period and location such as the late Russian filmmaker Larisa Shepitko’s The Ascent (1977), this one can’t hold a candle to that film and doesn’t do justice to the heroes, the fallen and the survivors who underwent such a trying ordeal nor does it really get at the brutality of the Nazis and the cowardice of the collaborators except in such an impersonal and trivial way that the bad guys seem like all those other bad guys from all those other forgettable second-rate WWII dramas.

REVIEWED ON 12/12/2008 GRADE: C+

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”