Defiance | Screen | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper


A tale of Holocaust survival gets by-the-numbers treatment

There were probably half a dozen better ways to make Defiance, the true story of about 1,200 Jews who survived the Russian leg of the Holocaust by hiding out for three years in a Belarus forest, where they built a community primeval.

The story might have started in New York City, where two of the brothers became businessmen after the war. Or maybe it could have begun just as the war ended, when we could look back on their feat.

But it begins at the beginning, with the Jews' escape from a pogrom and the prospect of being taken away to "work camps." They cry at the news of lost loved ones, struggle to save more Jews from nearby towns, bicker about how they'll feed so many people, and arm to fight the Germans who surround them. We say goodbye to the Bielski partisans (as history now calls them) in 1942, after one big battle, and a few words on screen tell us how they spent the next two years and the rest of the century.

The socially conscious Edward Zwick (Glory, Blood Diamond) directs Defiance like a pro: This is efficient Hollywood filmmaking at its most lifeless, drained of emotion by over-emotion, and drowning in a soundtrack that cues our fears and tears.

If the problem doesn't begin with accents, then it certainly ends there. As eldest brother Tuvia, Daniel Craig (in a stroke of eye-color-blind casting) never quite sounds like anything in particular, so Liev Schreiber, as middle brother Zus, makes up for it by sounding like something from Fiddler on the Roof. Jamie Bell, as Asael, the youngest, fares slightly better, although in one excited moment, he sounds exactly -- and I mean exactly -- like Billy Elliot.

The accents are supposed to remind us that they're Jewish or Russian or whatever, as if we wouldn't know that. But by not permitting them to speak naturally, with contractions and colloquialisms, the approach only makes them sounds quaint and self-conscious, like their native language is foreign to them.

This wouldn't matter if the dialogue weren't so bland, or if the story weren't so familiar. Zwick tries terribly hard to inject moral ambiguity into his heroic tale -- for example, when Tuvia shoots an arrogant member of their group after the cur insists on having extra food. Tuvia begins his odyssey with revenge, entering the home of the soldier who killed his parents, who begs to be spared because he was just following orders. Tuvia kills the man and his two grown sons as the man's wife looks on.

This leaves us with a formulaic Holocaust/war movie, nicely acted under the circumstances. But banality and shorthand reign -- the group's Hegel-spouting young intellectual is the only one who wears glasses! -- and barely a moment of Defiance stands out. Stories like this are hard to resist, and people like these deserve our esteem. But does that excuse a movie for having no imagination? You tell me.

Generic heroes: Liev Schreiber (left) and Daniel Craig.

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