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“Defiance”-(Chris's Review)-(Standard & Blu-ray) Edition

Chris Pandolfi

{Blu-ray} Segments:(Taylor Carlson)

Studio: Paramount
Release Date:
Special Features:

Audio commentary / 3 featurettes


True to its advertising claims, “Defiance” tells a story I’ve never heard before: That of the Bielski Partisans, a Jewish rebellion from Poland that rallied against Nazi occupiers at the height of World War II. Originally founded by the remaining sons of the Bielski family, it soon ballooned into an organization consisting of thousands of people, all freed from local Jewish ghettos. They struggled to survive in the Belarussian forests, facing starvation, disease, and exposure to the elements. ***

Their story was documented in the book “Defiance: The Bielski Partisans” by Nechama Tec, and this is the basis for Edward Zwick’s film. I give him credit for directing and co-writing a compelling story in which core human emotions are at odds with basic survival skills; in any such scenario, one must decide whether forgiveness, fairness, and tolerance is more important than staying alive. ***

In spite of its subject matter, “Defiance” is far from a perfect film. A lot of it felt like an adaptation, which is to say that it relies too heavily on war movie clichés like melodramatic dialogue and overt symbolism. I was especially wary of a death scene late in the film; with his last breath, he turns to Daniel Craig’s character and says, “I had almost lost my faith. But you were sent by God to save us.” Does this not seem contrived? ***

It’s second only to obvious visual statements for hope and redemption, as when sunshine bathes the partisans after weeks of harsh winter conditions, or when they all trudge across a swamp in the same way Moses and his chosen people trudged across the parted Red Sea. The creativity and technical merits of such moments are overshadowed by the sense that they don’t belong. ***

Still, the drama is persuasive, and the performances are decent given the material they had to work with. Craig, Liev Schreiber, Jamie Bell, and George MacKay portray Tuvia, Zus, Asael, and Aron Bielski, four brothers from West Belarus who lost their parents soon after the Germans invaded. Aron is virtually ignored in the film, and whenever he is featured, he mostly remains quiet and unassuming. The other three, however, are given very distinct personalities, all of which add to the drama and make the story much more personal. ***

Tuvia, for example, is initially angry over the deaths of his parents, and he personally tracks down and kills the Germans responsible. But it isn’t long before he realizes how wrong his actions were, and he spends the rest of the film trying to convince himself that the best revenge is mere survival. He also believes that everyone in hiding deserves equal portions of food and must do their fair share of work; this puts him at odds with certain survivors, who feel that those working harder deserve better treatment. ***

Zus, on the other hand, remains angry throughout the entire film. He doesn’t agree with Tuvia’s more forgiving philosophy--he wants revenge, plain and simple. Because he doesn’t get along with his brother, he decides to join a militant group of Soviet partisans also at odds with the Nazis. And as for Asael, the film focuses more on his romance with a young girl named Chaya (Mia Wasikowska), who in real life held the rare distinction of being a high school graduate. ***

Having now done a little research on the subject, I’m surprised at just how much Zwick left out of the screenplay. One of the biggest controversies surrounding the film is the omission of the 1943 Naliboki Massacre, which resulted in the deaths of 128 people. The Bielski partisans were accused of taking part in this alongside Soviet partisans. The fact that many historians deny their involvement should be of no consequence; an event so monumentally tragic should at least be acknowledged as having happened. I’m well aware that a film can only hold so much material before it gets unbearably long, but the way I see it, the Naliboki Massacre is too important to have overlooked. ***

There are also a few logistical issues that seemed to have slipped under the radar, such as the fact that so many of the partisans are never in short supply of alcohol. Where are they getting this alcohol from, and why is it easier to get than food? This doesn’t seem very plausible. ***

Despite these problems, “Defiance” is still worth recommending, mostly because the performances are believable. It has its other good points: the cinematography is top notch, revealing the squalor the partisans had to live in; James Newton Howard’s score is both solemn and exciting, a combination of violin dirges and piano solos; the struggle between survival and vengeance is convincing, especially during a scene in which a Nazi is captured and made to face the wrath of the partisans. ***

{Blu-ray} Edition:(Taylor Carlson)

Even though the film, due to its grim nature, was filmed in a drab style that isn't always colorful, this is one of the best Blu-Ray transfers this reviewer has ever laid eyes upon. The level of fine object detail is astounding, and the image is generally clear and free of any anomalies. The grain level is never distracting, and as far as I can tell, no artifical enhancements of any kind were used on this 1080p transfer. The end result is a film-like transfer with a great amount of detail and depth, which I will not hesitate to call reference quality.

Sound: The sound quality isn't too far behind the audio. Due to its setting and nature, the movie has a wide variety of ambient sounds for the lossless audio track to take advantage of. Be it the sounds of a forest or full-blown gunfire, this audio track shines throughout the course of the movie. While it isn't quite the best audio track on the market today, like the image, I feel secure in also declaring this track as reference quality.

Special Features:

This DVD includes an audio commentary by director Edward Zwick. It also includes three featurettes--“Return to the Forest: The Making of ‘Defiance,’” “Children of the Otriad: The Families Speak,” and “Bielski Partisan Survivors.” The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 widescreen format and features Dolby 5.1 Digital sound. ***

{Blu-ray} Edition:(Taylor Carlson)

Only a few features appear on the disc, but fortunately, they are all presented in HD. The first, Return to the Forest, looks at both the cast and crew's experience on the movie, as well as the history that inspired the film. Children of the Otriad is another featurette, in which the story that inspired the film is spoken about by the Bielsky Brothers. Scoring Defiance is exactly what it says it is, a summary of the creation of the film's superb musical score. Bielski Partisan Survivors is a fairly brief montage that takes a look at some of the actual survivors of the conflict the film explores. And rounding out the disc are theatrical trailers. All in all, not the biggest or best selection of features, but enough to entertain any fan of the film.

Final Words:

I see this film as an introduction of sorts, a way to let the public know that it’s based on actual events. Now that we know, I think it would be wise for another filmmaker to tell a more accurate story, one that doesn’t have to rely on traditional war movie clichés to send the audience a message.


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