It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
"Defiance" is based on the true story of a group of Jews in Belarus who successfully defied the Nazis, hid in the forest and maintained a self-contained society while losing only about 50 of their some 1,200 members. The "Bielski Partisans" represented the war's largest and most successful group of Jewish resisters, although when filmmakers arrived on the actual locations to film the story, they found no local memory of their activities, and, for many reasons, hardly any Jews. Edward Zwick's film shows how they survived, governed themselves, faced ethical questions and how their stories can be suited to the requirements of melodrama.
The story of "Defiance" has all the makings of a deep emotional experience, but I found myself oddly detached. Perhaps that's because most of the action and principal characters are within the group. The Nazis are seen in large part as an ominous threat out there somewhere in the forest, like "Those We Don't Speak Of" in M. Night Shyamalan's "The Village." Do I require a major Nazi speaking part for the film to work? No, but the drama tends to focus on issues, conflicts and romances within the group, and in that sense could be a very good reality show but lacks the larger dimension of, say, "Schindler's List."
What the film comes down to is a forest survival story, with a few scenes of Nazis trying to find and to destroy them and a few battle scenes that furnish the trailer and promise more of an action film. The survival story may contain omens for our own time. In the most fearsome of future scenarios, we may all have to survive in the wilderness, and we should be so lucky to have the Bielski brothers to help us. They were farmers, strong, fierce, skilled in survival skills, pragmatic.
The brothers are Tuvia Bielski (Daniel Craig), Zus Bielski (Liev Schreiber) and Asael (Jamie Bell). After they flee from genocide into the forest, others come hoping to join them, and word of their encampment spreads through the refugee underground. Tuvia decides early on that they must take in all Jews, even the helpless ones who cannot contribute; Zus, a firebrand, is less interested in saving Jews than killing Nazis, which he reasons will save more Jews. This conflict -- between helping our side or harming theirs -- is seen even today in the controversy over the invasion of Gaza, with Israel playing the role of the Bielski settlement.