Within the last week and a half, I saw two movies that rank among the best I’ve ever seen: Slumdog Millionaire and Defiance. Slumdog, as you probably know by now, is about an orphan from Mumbai who, in the process of fleeing starvation, murder, and the gouging out of his eyes, picks up enough trivia to go on the Indian version of “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire” and answer almost every question correctly. (It’s about 100 times better than the premise makes it sound.) Defiance tells the true story of the Bielski brothers in Belorussia (where most of my family is from), who fled to the forest when the Jews were rounded up in December 1941, and eventually organized the largest Jewish resistance operation of the war.
On thinking it over, I was surprised to realize I liked these two seemingly-unrelated movies for the same reasons. Let me try to break down what made them good:
- Both draw their emotional punch from reality. Almost everything in Defiance happened. Slumdog, while fictional, is (amazingly) the first Western blockbuster I can think of about modern India—a place where 21st-century communication, entertainment, and industry coexist with 16th-century squalor, and everyone acts as if that’s normal. (If you haven’t been there, the anarchic street scenes might strike you as obviously exaggerated for effect. They aren’t.)
- Both tell wildly-improbable tales of bare physical survival. Survival stories aren’t just the best for keeping you in your seat: they also provide a useful reminder that your beliefs about politics and human nature might be badly distorted by the contingent facts that you have enough to eat and that armed thugs aren’t trying to kill you. (I tried to think of a phrase to summarize my political philosophy, and came up with “liberal pessimist pragmatist rationalist of an unsentimental kind.” Slumdog and Defiance both explain this concept better than I could.)
- Even as they starve, sleep in the rain, and flee their would-be killers, the protagonists in both movies pursue goals beyond just staying alive—which is what lets us identify with them so strongly. Jamal Malik appears on a game show to win the beautiful Latika. Tuvia Bielski risks his life to exact revenge on the police officer who killed his parents. Days after losing their families to the Nazis, the young women who arrive at the Bielski settlement are weighing which of the men to offer themselves to as “forest wives.”
- Both movies use visuals in the service of a story rather than vice versa. When Spielberg filmed Schindler’s List in black and white (save for the famous girl in red), reviewers were full of praise: what a profound artistic statement he must’ve been making! The result, though, was that people saw the Holocaust the same way they’d seen it everywhere else: as something from some remote, incomprehensible black-and-white past. But Defiance, like The Pianist, denies you the luxury of a visual remove—as if to say, “this is how it was. It’s part of the same universe you live in right now. It’s not even particularly incomprehensible, if you choose to comprehend it.”
- Both movies indulge the audience in what it already knows about the respective cultures. Slumdog features hilarious scenes at the Taj Mahal and a call center, and ends with a tongue-in-cheek Bollywood dance number. Defiance portrays the “malbushim” (the Bielskis’ derisive term for intellectuals) arguing and quoting Talmud as they starve in the woods. It’s as if, instead of telling you that the stereotypes you came in with are false, these movies say “and so what if they’re true?”
- Both movies have been criticized as “simplistic”—a word that seems to mean “too clear or comprehensible for polite company,” and that I’ve found to be an almost-perfect marker for things that I’m going to like or agree with. Even as the plots add on layers of complexity—sibling rivalries, uneasy alliances, unconsummated love—the dialogue is always straightforward enough that even a borderline Aspberger’s case like myself could follow what was going on without difficulty.
- Despite a backdrop of blood and tears on a continent-wide scale—which the audience knows full well is real, not fictional—both movies end up joyous and uplifting. Lots of bad guys get blown to pieces, while the good guys you most care about live. Is such uplift “glib,” “problematic,” or even “simplistic”? Well, what’s the point of going to a movie in the first place? I want to walk away feeling that the inherent injustice of the universe can be successfully defied, that I need not apologize for taking comparatively benign steps to solve the comparatively trivial problems in my own life. I want my $10’s worth.