For those yearning for a movie, any movie, which, if only as a mere courtesy, won’t offend. For those who thought Hollywood could not make a film touching on religion without disdain or disparagement for faith or institution. For those who wonder why the industry that can make a motion picture about anything can’t seem to make one that portrays, in any honesty, Communist tyranny. For those and all others who simply desire to go to a clean family movie, a wonderful movie, a beautiful movie, a movie with meaning, with depth, with lessons, take heart–<a href=http://www.iamdavidmovie.com/main_flash.html?DETECT=SWF.6000000?I Am David opens in theaters on December 3.
Based on the acclaimed novel by Danish author Anne Holm, I Am David is set in 1952, at a Bulgarian prison camp where 12-year-old David (played by Ben Tibber, whose unforced and moving portrayal of a the anxious, cautious, lost but brave boy is marvelous) has spent most of his short life. Without family or past, with one friend, with little hope, and burdened by the daily dose of brutality which Stalinist regimes provided for gulag residents, David, who knows nothing different than this misery, nevertheless knows there is something better to be had beyond the electrified fence and barbed wire, and yearns for freedom.
David’s story is simple: He escapes the camp, with some (critical and surprising) help, and obediently follows the advice that he first make his way to Greece, then to Italy, and from there to Denmark, where, he is told, his eventual freedom, and more, awaits. Who has kept David alive in prison, who has counseled him to break out, and who assisted his escape are, of course, central to the plot–and more importantly, to the movie’s overall messages of hope, deliverance, trust, and the inherent goodness in people. All of this is exposed in frequent short flashbacks over most of the film’s 90 minutes, but divulging any preview of that here will spoil this movie’s beauty, so I won’t say more–except that I cannot recall a better testament to the virtues of sacrifice and selflessness than found in the short but exquisite performance by Jim Caviezel (better known for portraying Jesus in The Passion of the Christ).
All great novels and films are essentially about journeys into self-discovery. I Am David is no different than other films in this regard, but it is worlds apart from Hollywood’s longstanding and ongoing treatment–poor treatment indeed when seen from a conservative perspective–of essential and/or significant cultural forces, particularly religion and Communism.
For those of us who have so long (and rightly) lamented Hollywood’s failure to fairly address the spiritual, or even to recognize (never mind admonish) the monstrous totalitarian ideology that has murdered tens of millions and enslaved billions (and still does!), I Am David is the answer to a prayer. Walden Media, the movie’s producer, visits these issues convincingly, and does so without overt or excessive propagandizing. There is no heavy hand: its mission is to make good, honest, family movies, not to be the hired hand of preachers and Cold Warriors.
And yet, through the mix of beautiful cinematography, deft screenwriting, and warm, sincere acting by its cast, I Am David accomplishes what no evangelizing monsignor HUAC member could.
For example, early in the film, after David’s escape and arrival in Italy, a jovial baker attempts to befriend him, and tells David how the patroness of bakers–St. Elizabeth (of Hungary)–will protect him if invoked. Praying to saints is a long and deeply felt and still widely observed Church practice that 1) rarely finds itself portrayed in movies and 2) is easily mocked as Catholic voodoo. But I Am David, without preaching, without even hinting that it is subliminally engaging in brand placement of Roman Catholic tradition, deals with this rich side of spirituality in a touching, convincing, and positive manner.
By the way, David does eventually invoke the saint, and he is helped, but whether this is by St. Elizabeth’s intervention or not, only You Know Who know. Here, as in other scenes, the movie’s bias is to tread softly. The result is that the viewer has an endearing look at religious tradition, rather than a papal edict.
Religion is also the backdrop for the movie’s most compelling segment, near its end. Wandering into a small Swiss church where the local choir is assembling, David stands in the rear watching, listening, drinking in this strange and mysterious environment–a thing unknown in his Bulgarian imprisonment–when a police officer enters and approaches the youth. A man in a uniform–maybe women like them, but gulag residents and prison escapees don’t. This encounter is an important fork in David’s road: He can run, again, as he has in previous encounters with police, or trust the possibility that this man, even though a gendarme, can be good. Told once in the camp to trust no one, David chooses to test man’s goodness. He closes his eyes, summons his courage, looks at the officer, and says, simply, but monumentally, “hello.” Unaware of the momentous event playing out and his role in it, the officer (the actor looks like the reincarnation of Charles DeGaulle), smiles, and returns the greeting–”Hello to you”–and they both stand side by side, almost like a grandfather and grandson, listening to choir sing (gloriously!) Mozart’s (glorious!) Ave Verum. David’s world is now a good place.
But don’t expect to smile yourself: While the choir sings the hymn (it’s Latin lyrics are about the crucifixion of Jesus) a montage flashback of crucial events in the prison camp rolls out. It is intense and deeply moving, and a lesson that salvation of any kind requires sacrifice. Most of the audience with whom I saw the preview of the movie sobbed here. As did I. And rightly so.
I Am David is directed and written by Paul Fieg. Kudos for him for taking the simple route. Whether it be dialogue or characters or prison-camp brutality, less, as is so often the case in I Am David, proves to be much more. In addition to the wonderful performances of Caviezel and (especially!) Tibber, the movie’s other major star is the great Joan Plowright, another stranger to David, but a wise, tolerant, sincere, and utterly maternal figure who proves to be his true savior. I nominate her for the Mother of All Grandmothers.
I Am David (rated PG) is a wonderful film, a truly, truly special film that warms the heart and nourishes the soul and speaks to the goodness of humanity, even in the bleakness of tyrannical hellholes, and of God’s Creation. No four-year-old will enjoy it, but kids 10 and up will be fascinated by the story, and by Ben Tibber.
It is worth noting that I Am David is a triumph for Walden Media, which came into existence but a few years ago precisely to make these types of movies–family-oriented and meaningful adaptations of acclaimed novels (currently in production are C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Lois Lowry’s Newberry Award-winner The Giver)–and to teach children. Yes, teach children: Walden is a unique operation–visit it at www.walden.com–with a fascinating educational component. Its co-founder and president is my old National Review colleague Micheal Flaherty, for whom I couldn’t be happier or prouder.
Sadly, I Am David will have a limited release, but there is hope that, as word of this cinematic jewel spreads, more venues will be showing it. For more about the movie, please visit www.iamdavidmovie.com, where you can also download for free the movie’s accompanying, and pleasantly surprising, education guide.
–Jack Fowler is National Review’s associate publisher.