14 November, 2011

Savannah: "In Darkness" (****1/2)

Milla Bankowicz and Robert Wieckiewicz star in "In Darkness"

My last day in Savannah, I had the the misfortune of having to choose between seeing Lily Tomlin in person at a tribute/screening of “The Late Show” or seeing Agnieszka Holland's baity but promising Holocaust drama, “In Darkness.” I chose the later with the hope that I would see Tomlin somewhere around town. I didn't spot her, but I am very pleased with my choice.

“In Darkness” tells the tale of Leopold Socha, a Catholic sewer worker in Lvov, Poland during the Nazi occupation. Along with his work partner, Socha (played magnificently by Robert Wieckiewicz) has begun breaking into the vacant homes of Jewish citizens that have been moved into the ghetto and stashing their valuables in the sewers for his own personal safekeeping. Meanwhile, as the Nazi's began their assault on the ghetto, a large group of Jews manage to dig down under their house and into the sewers where they are surprised by Socha just minutes after breaking through. Socha sees an opportunity to make some money and a deal is struck.

The audience is introduced to so many characters in the first half hour, it can be a bit difficult to know who you really need to focus on. Aside from the obvious lead, Socha, it soon becomes apparent who the other main players are and you form your attachments appropriately. While you see Socha as a loving husband and hard-working father right off the bat, how he takes advantage of the already desperate crowd he finds beneath the city showcases him as a bit less than a hero. Having him forced on you as the unlikely protagonist allows for a great evolution to play out. Wieckiewicz gives us a deeply nuanced turn as he we watch him learn both the impact he has had on those in the darkness and the impact they have had on him.

Maria Schrader stars in "In Darkness"
Visually, the movie is as dark as the name suggests. At least half of the film takes place in the sewers, thus evoking the proper sense of claustrophobia. A couple shots in particular felt nearly iconic to me; a woman in vivid blue running through the grey streets of the ghetto during the Nazi raid, Socha bringing a little girl up to the surface just enough to poke her head above the street. The production tips closer to minimalistic than lush, which works well under Holland's careful direction and in the bleak setting.

The movie is very powerful and carries a scholarly tone that should allow it to maintain a presence in the genre for years. As far as the Academy is concerned, this is a sure bet for a Best Foreign Language nomination (as Poland's submission) and a definite contender to take home the trophy. Wieckiewicz would have a place on my ballot as well as considerations for the film in Best Picture and several technical categories. This would be a great film for the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival to add to their lineup.

4.5 out of 5 stars.

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