After the Nazi horrors of World War II came the Communist oppression of Eastern European countries. People who disagreed with the regimes were sent to prison/labor camps: the Gulag. We know little about these years of the Cold War (1946 – 1989) and the situations that led to so much suffering and death. With I am David we are given insight into the results of fascism and totalitarianism, as well as the consequences of hope, courage, human dignity and love.
In Bulgaria a family is arrested and a very young boy named David (Ben Tibber) is taken away from his mother. He grows up alone, his only friend an educated man by the name of Johannes (Jim Caviezel). Johannes is a mentor to David and teaches him that there are good people beyond the camp and that David, though skeptical, must hope.
There is some trouble in the camp in 1952 and the now 12-year old David is told that he must escape and that he will find a sack with provisions buried just beyond the camp’s fence. He is given a letter, sealed, and told he must bring it to Denmark and give it to the authorities there. David makes a run for it and escapes. He makes it to a Greek port, takes a ship for Italy and walks town by town up the Italian peninsula. Along the way he is helped by various people, and scared off by some who call the police because he is a boy traveling alone.
Near the Swiss border he meets a woman painting pictures near a lake. She is Sophie (Joan Plowright). She asks David if she can paint him because she is fascinated by his eyes that are too old for a child so young. Sophie is attracted to David because he reminds her of someone in her own life. It is through Sophie’s kindness that the David’s odyssey continues to its climax.
I am David is based on the 1963 award-winning novel by Anne Holm, North to Freedom. The film was written and directed by Paul Feig who created the critically acclaimed television series Freaks and Geeks (1999 – 2000). Feig obviously has insight into adolescence as well as the ability to knit a story together in clever ways that are not revealed until the appointed time. None of the characters speak English as their native tongue. Just how Mr. Feig overcomes this challenge without resorting to subtitles often adds a dimension of humor to balance the drama.
Jim Caviezel has a relatively small role but it is intricate to the plot. He is joined by another The Passion of the Christ star, Hristo Shopov (Pontius Pilate), whose character is much more pivotal.
To call a film “inspirational” is usually a death sentence to its success, but I can’t help it here. The story is told in ways that do not manipulate the emotions, though you may shed a tear here and there. I am David is a journey and a mystery. See if you can solve it before the last leg of David’s heroic journey. Bet you can’t.