Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Death Neglected IV: Unexpected Heroes

I think I mainly went to see Defiance because I didn’t want to see Valkyrie. Before the movie, I had one of those workdays that punch you in the stomach then run away laughing. When I sat down in the theater, I really really wanted the film to fully utilize 007 and have an exploding budget kick ass WWII movie, knowing full well that’s not going to be the case since it’s only playing in one theater in NY. When I walked out 2 hours later, it was the non-Hollywood scenes that I liked best.

There were definitely moments when the movie steered into melodrama, and had one too many inspirational speeches. But when the film moved away from that, the scenes felt real and oddly enough, easy to relate to. The story of Defiance starts out with the four Bielski brothers escaping into the Belorussia woods to escape the Nazis. They find some other escaped Jews in the woods, others were thrust upon them during food hunts, then more people found them. Before they know it, the Bielski name is known around the region, and the oldest brother Tuvia decides to take in any Jew that comes to them (including the sick and old), while the second brother Zus joins the Russian partisans to actively fight the Nazis. Much of the movie is not watching heroes do heroic things, but normal everyday people suddenly needing to survive in the woods. The struggle aren’t just about evading the Nazis, but how to feed so many hungry people, what to do when disease spreads out in the camp, how to survive the winter. In one scene, the newly arrives have to report their occupation so they can be assigned work, one man said weakly, “Accountant”. I couldn’t help but think how many of us actually have a job or skill that’d help us during a time of crisis. It was easy to watch the film without detached awe or sympathy.

Another thing I appreciate is the characters. Tuvia (Craig) might be portrayed as the protagonist, the king of the forest, Moses-reborn, the guy who prance around on a white horse while giving an inspiration speech (honestly guys? Honestly??), but he’s not above rage, hesitancy, and genuine hopelessness. While he actively (and forcefully) asserts his position as the unquestionable leader, other times he seems bewildered and uncomfortable when people recognize him for a hero. On the other hand, Zus (Liev Schreiber) is the surly, arrogant, aggressive and competitive brother. But instead of getting into trouble and needing the protagonist brother to save his ass as would happen in most movies, Zus is without a doubt a hero during the time of need. At the end one has to recognize that just because he believed differently from his humanitarian brother, doesn’t make him wrong. What I suppose was the most surprising though, is Asael Bielski (Jamie Bell), the third brother that people (and the movie) often forget since it’s hard to get in the center of the screen with Tuvia and Zus around. But over the course of the movie, he grows slowly and realistically from a boy to a man, and at the end has his moment where he outshines his brothers. It felt good to watch characters that aren't your typical hero, black sheep, and exposition dish.

All in all, the movie had its Hollywood, melodramatic moments (complete with sad violin playing in the back, I’m not kidding), and heavy-handed Biblical themes. But honestly, it’s a holocaust movie. It’s just that the scenes that are heart-felt and realistic make intercutting a wedding and a bloody ambush with soaring music seem unnecessary. I didn’t get the adrenaline rush movie I had walked in wanting, but I walked out with a satisfied feeling that the twelve bucks were well paid.

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