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Defiance (R) ***

A scene from Defiance.
A scene from Defiance.

By Connie Ogle, The Miami Herald

The amazing real story behind Defiance is another example of truth’s being stranger, and often more intriguing, than fiction. Based on a nonfiction book by Holocaust survivor Nechama Tec, the film tells the story of the Bielskis, three Jewish brothers who escaped the Nazis during World War II by hiding in the forest.

Led by the oldest, Tuvia, the Bielskis created a refuge in that freezing, inhospitable place for other Jews fleeing certain death. Their group, which eventually numbered 1,200, included large numbers of women, the elderly, even infants.

With a background this riveting, Defiance should pack a bigger emotional punch than it does. Directed by Edward Zwick (Blood Diamond, The Last Samurai), the film isn’t much of a character study; too many of its secondary characters are stereotypes, and it never fully engages our emotions the way Schindler’s List or The Pianist did.

But as a thinking person’s action movie, Defiance accomplishes plenty; it’s smart and well-acted, suspenseful and entertaining. Starting in 1941 with the slaughter or detaining of most of the Jews in a Belarus village, the film traces the moral paths of Tuvia (Daniel Craig) and Zus (Liev Schreiber) and their younger brother Asael (Jamie Bell) as they flee into the woods that have always been a sanctuary from the law.

Hot-headed Zus understandably lusts for vengeance, and at first Tuvia acquiesces; the film hints that the brothers, possible smugglers, have had plenty of run-ins with authority. One scene in which Tuvia confronts the man responsible for his parents’ deaths is among the most harrowing in the film. But Tuvia, a man of action thrust suddenly into a position in which he must become contemplative or perish, realizes that revenge is not the only mission. The lost and damaged souls wandering through the forest are the Bielskis’ responsibility. The brothers are the only ones with any experience at evading authority, and, without them, the others won’t survive.

As the group grows larger, and food becomes scarce, conflicts erupt, and brotherly bonds are tested when Zus, itching for engagement, joins up with a band of Russian partisans. Craig and Schreiber infuse the fraying relationship between Tuvia and Zus — men of few words who feel more than they admit — with understated affection and, later, smoldering resentment.

Moments of pure Hollywood crop up from time to time — such as the final confrontation — and Defiance feels a bit flabby in its middle section. But Zwick stages many powerful scenes, and he uses his winter backdrop to mesmerizing effect, moving effortlessly to chronicle joy (the community celebrates a wedding, and snow falls softly and benignly) and danger (a tense standoff over dwindling supplies). Defiance may lack the sort of emotional punch that sticks, but its story of courage and responsibility is undeniably compelling.

Cast: Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, Jamie Bell, Alexa Davalos

Director: Edward Zwick

Screenwriters: Clayton Frohman, Edward Zwick. From the book by Nechama Tec.

Producers: Pieter Jan Brugge, Edward Zwick.

A Paramount Vantage release. Running time: 137 minutes. Violence, language. Playing at area theaters.