MOVIE REVIEW: 'In Darkness' a powerful Holocaust tale told ineffectively

In Darkness (NR)

2 out of 4 stars

A nominee for Best Foreign Language feature at the most recent Academy Awards (from Poland), "In Darkness" has the distinct misfortune of following in the wake of "The Diary of Anne Frank" and "Schindler's List" (and in a way "Inglourious Basterds"). World War II has provided the inspiration for many films but this one is in a most slim microcosm of that huge genre and will strike many as being unoriginal and/or repetitive.

Although not shot in black and white, "In Darkness" might have looked somewhat better if it had. Well over half of the story takes place in dank, barely lit sewers that almost instantly becomes a visual irritant. Add to that too many close-ups, spastic editing and overlapping dialogue in a myriad of foreign languages and it all becomes a blur.

A director of enormous talent, the Polish-born Agnieszka Holland ("Europa Europa") obviously had her heart in the right place by trying to remain authentic to Robert Marshall's book, but she, screenwriter David F. Shamoon and their technical team could have surely found some room for compromise with their choice of settings or at least provided better lighting.

Almost exactly like Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), sewer custodian Leopold Socha (Robert Wieckiwicz) turns of the recent Nazi occupation of his town (Lwow -- now a part of Ukraine) to his monetary advantage. With an extensive knowledge of every nook and cranny in the town's bowels, Socha discovers a handful of hiding Jews and -- without a second thought -- decides to extort them to the fullest extent possible while doubling their ranks.

In addition to overcharging the Jews for sub-par scraps of food, Socha and a friend spend their off hours combing through the above-ground rubble and walking away with anything and everything of worth. Some of what they take actually belongs to the very people in his care. What a guy; what a humanitarian. It could be just a coincidence -- although it probably isn't -- but Wieckiwicz could easily pass as Neeson's younger, shorter, slightly beefier brother. The resemblance between the two men is uncanny.

What differentiates Schindler and Socha is that the former eventually realized that making a profit off of other peoples' misery was a bad thing and he ended up liquidating his entire fortune in order to save them. Socha goes through no so such moral or spiritual epiphany and remains an opportunist for the duration of the story.

In the end, it's probably fair to say that what Socha did saved lives. The state of Israel posthumously awarded Socha and his wife Wanda (Kinga Preis) their "Righteous among the Nations" award (the same that was bestowed upon Schindler) given to gentiles that protected Jews during the Holocaust.

Does it matter if one saves lives out of a genuine desire to specifically do so or if the lives they save is a mere by-product of a commercial venture? This is a question with as many right answers as wrong and for that the filmmakers deserve some credit. They lob a moral question into your lap and leave it to you to come to your own conclusions. What they don't and didn't deserve was an Oscar nomination for their film. An overlong mediocre movie about morality in wartime is still in the end just another overlong mediocre movie.

Presented in multiple Eastern European languages with English subtitles. (Sony Classics)