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Cinema Signal: Not quite a green light but has elements of strong appeal for a limited audience.

The Bielski Partisans
by Nechama Tec
(Discounted Paperback from Amazon)
. "Defiance"

Director, co-writer Edward Zwick and screenwriter Clayton Frohman have picked up on a historian's account of World War II survival by a band of Jews that comes with the natural drama of thwarting impending death. If not by a Nazi bullet then by stalking hunger. While Zwick's by-the-numbers approach seems submissive to the material and, thereby, minimally written and directed, this rare instance of Hitler's targets daring to defy the Reich serves the filmmaker's purpose to teach us that defenseless compliance wasn't the case for every vitim of the Reich.

Could be that the difference between these people marked for death and their brethren is the difference between the city and a remote, densely forested countryside. When the Bielski brothers come home to find their father dead and their farmhouse savaged, the rugged individuality, conditioned by lives of hunting and farming, illustrates why their natural response would be to exact revenge and do what they have to to defend themselves.

With no gestapo breathing down their necks, and only the local police chief who turns dead Jews into paychecks from the fuehrer, the matter of immediate payback is carried out easily, with three bullets. Of course the action brings storm troopers, but by the time they arrive, the steady and astute Tuvia (Daniel Craig), the hot-headed Zus (Liev Schreiber), gentle, loyal Asael (Jamie Bell) and little Aron (George MacKay) are in a forest with many hiding places.

What they encounter first aren't Nazis but fellow Jews of the region who have found their way to the forest also. As most are far less capable of wilderness survival than the brothers, they look to them for guidance and protection. Tuvia decides, against his more belligerent brother's wishes, to form a partisan group for all Jews who wish to join them, and assumes the role of natural leader. Thus begins the death-defying journey of the "Bielski Partisans."

Disagreements between him and Zus leads to a rivalry over the needs and methods for revenge. After a bitter slugfest between them, Zus splits off with a small contingent of like-minded fighters and joins up with the nearby Russian force whose lack of love for Jews is trumped by their having a common enemy. And, after their first engagement with a Nazi unit, General Panchenko (Ravil Isyanov) can recognize exceptional fighters when he sees them in action.

The Jewish clan, grown sizable, is discovered, only to be moved by Tuvia to a more obscure location where he has the community build a village. With wise organization and diplomatic wisdom, he constructs a set of rules and priorities that provides order and keeps them going. There's a brief rebellion by a few mutinous men desiring to wrest control and privileges, but Tuvia, while feverish from a communicable illness, deals with it in a ruthless but just way--to the increased respect of his followers. There's never any community-wide question of who they regard as their leader.

The film becomes as much a fight against a powerful enemy as a sociological study, with romance blossoming for Asael and Tuvia, a marriage, a birth, mutual support. The desaturated color spectrum used by cinematographer Eduardo Serra is a welcome and appropriate way to avoid the happy coloration of a falsely bright visual palette.

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  • Commentary by director Edward Zwick
  • Return to the Forest: The Making of Defiance
  • Children of the Otriad: The Families Speak
    The Blu-ray Edition DVD

    SPECIAL FEATURES (HD where indicated):
  • Commentary by director Edward Zwick
  • Return to the Forest: The Making of Defiance (HD)
  • Children of the Otriad: The Families Speak (HD)
  • Scoring Defiance (HD)
  • Bielski Partisan Survivors (HD)
  • More
    The Soundtrack
  • Zwick's sedate storytelling tone doesn't seem to be coming from the same source as his "Blood Diamond" or "The Last Samurai" and one wonders if he was too awe-stricken by the historical record to make the tale more robust and daring. And, cinematic. Some of the dialogue that Zwick went with might have been written by a first-timer. He also seems unable to leave anything out, wearing us down with detail that seems repetitious. 136 minutes makes it a tedious slog. Perhaps he thought he was making another "Schindler's List," but not this way he wasn't.

    The story is based on "Defiance: The Bielski Partisans" by Nechama Tec. In the end, according to Tec's book and the film's afterward, 1200 Jewish people emerged from the forest of Byelorussia when Russian forces liberated them in 1944.

    The film provides an opportunity to study the polarity of Craig's performance art, from the silky threads of Bond (just released "Quantum Solace") to the forest leathers of "Defiance." The steel-jawed expression and inner intelligence survives the change of outfits and styles.

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                                          ~~  Jules Brenner  

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    Daniel Craig as Tuvia Bielski
    Defying the death of his Partisans.

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