Defiance (Movie Review)

Note: Has it really been almost a week since my last review?


"Our revenge will be to survive," speaks Daniel Craig to his comrades about a third of the way through Defiance, a film that follows a camp of vagabond Jews forced out of comfort by the Nazis during WWII. It's a line that no doubt would've had greater effect as a punchy closer, a sort of delightful ribbon on the tidily gift wrapped Hollywood ending. But alas what I must take it for is a sentiment that the Jews during WWII were all but resigned to passivity, only responding when faced with certain death, and even then they would rather scramble to find another way. I wouldn't consider "fight or die" defiance, but then again a review is hardly a place for the discussion of misnomers.

The year is 1941 and Nazi Germany is sweeping through Eastern Europe, rounding up the Jewish folk and lodging bullets in their skulls. Four Jewish brothers manage to escape the Nazi raid on their village and flee into the woods for survival. Forced to live in secrecy for fear of death, the brothers find themselves in a position of reluctant leadership, and end up accepting every Jewish vagrant that turns up at their tree stump. Survival is based around keeping silent, smuggling goods, and trading with nearby encampments of similar circumstance. Eventually the unwitting foursome grows into a camp of exiled hundreds, prompting questions of leadership, loyalty, and responsibility in the ranks as their numbers increase.

Defiance is a true story based on real events and real characters, so I find it rather perplexing that the film occasionally adopts what might be considered a fairy tale disposition. As early on as the brothers' first encounter with a handful of displaced Jews in the middle of a forest, choice cinematography and character movement evokes the feeling of a fable (sullen movement among the misty trees in a grey/green/brown palette). It might be a stretch to call this stylistic direction a strength, but it's an element certainly pandered to as the narrative progresses. Especially when religious allegory begins to rear it's ugly head towards the end in a method very reminiscent of The Last Samurai (also directed by Edward Zwick).

"How is it that I accepted into our community dozens of Jewish nurses, teachers, carpenters, musicians, and rabbis, but not a single war strategist or tactician?"

Character development is also interesting, as is the depiction of both the Jewish camp and the alleged "Nazi Death Machine." The two main roles of the eldest brothers Tuvia (Daniel Craig) and Zus (Live Schreiber) Bielski both develop as real people might as opposed to rigid WWII archetypes. Tuvia is resigned to reluctant leadership of the Jewish rabble and is faced with looming German threats as well as the risk of internal mutiny, and evolves and copes appropriately. Zus on the other hand lets his bloodlust get the better of him and defects to a neighbouring Russian encampment so he can relish in the denial of achieving nothing with a gun before regressing to his brotherly obligations. They're better characters than what one might expect from a WWII drama, but unfortunately they must be acquiescent to the plot, and wind up in an ending that could only be more Hollywood if the score used trumpet solos as opposed to violin.

Speaking of musical instruments, the film's music is very good, consisting of perfect underscores coupled with great instrumentation and rather deft orchestration. The score does an exceptional job of subtly emphasizing emotional gravity, which is why it's all the more unfortunate that cinematography is generally insipid. What passes as panache is an action sequence that seemed to be caught with a low frequency strobe light on. The desired effect is lost, and the general sentiment seemed to be that the reel was skipping. The rest of the film is rather unremarkably shot, with no real sense of pace and a very uneven feel overall.

Though despite the aforementioned quibbles, I liked Defiance. While the film didn't resonate very strongly with me (mind you hardly any film does), the overall material is good enough to warrant a recommendation. It's overlong and self indulgent (but what isn't these days?) and more or less evens out to what might happen if Jeff Probst hosted a season of Survivor 68 years ago.

And if that doesn't sell you, then you can always pretend that the root question is "what if James Bond were Moses?" and have a good laugh.

I never saw that movie but now I think I might go and get it because it seems to be worth it.

Very well-written. A tad bemusing in parts, but informative and paced. The last line made me smile.


And if that doesn't sell you, then you can always pretend that the root question is "what if James Bond were Moses?" and have a good laugh.

That sounds like the best pitch for a remake of The Ten Commandments I have ever heard. If I were a Hollywood studio guy, I'd mail you a check for $200 million right now.

(Just to be clear, I am not.)

Good review. Might see it.

A tad bemusing in parts, but informative and paced.

Yeah, I really need to work at toning down my Pretentious Level. I hate running the risk of sounding like too much of a smart ass when I review movies.


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