Based on a true story, "Defiance" is about as far from the suave, high-tech James Bond character that its star Daniel Craig can get. Yet, because it is spellbinding in its sheer brutality, unflinching in its courage and enduring in its hope, the extraordinary struggle will leave you both shaken and stirred.
A solid, understated, yet dazzling Craig stars as Tuvia Bielski, one of three Polish brothers who led hundreds of Jews to escape the Nazis in 1941. The three narrowly avoid the fate of their parents and together with a small group of followers seek cover in the deep woods they frolicked in as children. As word spreads of their bravery, they are joined by others hoping to escape capture and certain slaughter.
Trying to stay one step ahead of the encroaching German officers who are rewarded for every Jew they successfully "hunt," the motley assortment at first stays with sympathetic landowners, one of whom wonders aloud: "Why is it so hard being friends with a Jew?"
As more Jews learn of their daring trek for survival, they join Tuvia's "troops" and form a self-sustaining, nomadic, caring community. Constantly on the move, they must forage for food, and to withstand the bitter Belarus winter, they build shelters using the most primitive of tools.
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After losing family that were supposedly safe, Tuvia's younger brother Zus (a brooding yet powerful Liev Schreiber) becomes enraged and eager to fight. Unable to ignore the tactics of the "Final Solution," he seeks revenge through barbaric means. Cool and clear-headed, his wise older brother, now reluctant leader of their group, tries to reason with him: "We may be hunted like animals, but we will not become animals," Tuvia says.
Zus soon leaves to join the Russians, who despite their anti-Semitism, he is convinced, also aim to defeat the Third Reich. Meanwhile, Tuvia's burgeoning army of families and stragglers subsist on what they can find or steal and steadily accumulate weapons, supplies, clothing and most important, bullets.
As their numbers increase, so does their resolve. Valuables are collected and bartered for items deemed useful to the common good. Skills or talent are taken advantage of, again, to benefit everyone. Armed only with a sense of righteousness and nerves of steel, the downtrodden manage to keep even the frailest among them alive, remaining ever-mindful of the chilling indifference that surrounds them.
The performances are both raw and remarkable. The juxtaposition of a traditional Jewish wedding replete with a rabbi, canopy, music and dancing, and a jarring, bloody ambush of an armed truckload of SS soldiers only reinforces their faith in the face of unrelenting danger and unspeakable evil.
A touching yet sweeping epic, the incredible story serves as both a compelling admonition of "never again" and an unsettling, timely warning against the tyranny of the majority. Along with the horrors and heroics we see the humanity of disbelief and the insatiable instinct for self-preservation.
Despite the machinelike efficiency of their enemy, the refugees' unwavering will to fight and their ability to protect the weak, all while in hiding, is nothing short of astonishing. And between the palpable fear and senseless violence, Tuvia reminds us all of their very basic mission: "Our revenge is to live."