My first thoughts about the film, was of Ken Loach's The Wind That Shakes The Barley, the Palme d'Or winner in 2006. Similarly, Defiance has brothers leading a rag-tag group of Jewish refugees in guerrilla warfare and a quest for survival, where being alive everyday means a middle finger to the Third Reich during WWII, and organizing themselves to become a tightly knitted community where, like their Russian neighbours, everyone has an equal role to play to get rewarded with equal food. And with two lion-hearted brothers at the helm, sooner or later the sibling rivalry will rear its ugly head, and differing political ideals will see them part ways.
Dramatized from a true story, you can sense the kind of films that Edward Zwick selects. From Glory to the much maligned Siege, from The Last Samurai to Blood Diamond, it's almost always the battle against an oppressive regime, where the underdogs hold out to tell their tale another day. It's a battle within oneself to do what one perceives as the right thing, nevermind about the extremely limited resources, or the weather coming to wreck havoc, and the challenge to hold a community of strangers together working toward a common goal.
Set in Belarus during the German invasion of WWII, David Craig plays Tuvia Bielski, who is akin to the Moses of the day by the community he shields and looks after, because they move in exodus from point to point within the forest to escape detection and get out of harm's way. The religious metaphors here are inevitably strong, and plays a major part given that God's chosen people are questioning their persecution, one point even praying to denounce that birthright so that they could no longer need to suffer under the hands of man, and the weather. Craig's role here is 10 times better than his Bland Bond from Quantum of Solace, and has more personality here to showcase his acting chops.
Liev Schreiber holds his own as the brother Zus Bielski, who subscribes to the mantra of an eye for an eye, preferring the rough and tumble of being an aggressor rather than to cower, believing that the best defense is still an offense, wanting to bring the war back to the Nazis. He also prefers not to accept anymore refugees that they can handle, as their group get sought out by hundreds on sheer reputation alone. So herein they clash, and he throws his weight behind their Russian neighbours in their resistance effort. Schreiber here has a more action-oriented role, but has enough screen presence to not get overshadowed by Craig's star power.
And rounding up the brothers is Jamie Bell's Asael Bielski, and if Tuvia's the Moses, then here's Joshua, the young man who shows his mettle during a critical scene in a flight for survival. Supporting the brothers' screen presence are a whole host of characters ranging from their individual lady love (yes, there's always time for a morale boosting wedding), and the bantering of two intellectuals played by Allan Corduner and Mark Feuerstein over chess games, allowing fleeting discussions into whether support from the Russians is the lesser of two evils. There's also time given to community politics, and the selfishness of man, always trying to snook established practices for self-benefit at the detriment of the community, especially one whose members are weak to fend for themselves.
There aren't many uplifting moments in the movie, as there's always more problems they encounter before any semblance of light at the end of their tunnel. Production values are excellent, and unlike the much talked about lack of accents in Bryan Singer's Valkyrie, this one does have everyone speaking in their East European accent in order to maintain some level of authenticity. You'd know what to expect from an Edward Zwick film, and this one doesn't stray too much from that established expectation. For WWII war-movie junkies, this film should also be in your shortlist of must-watchs.