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Human Spirit Triumphs in "I Am David"

  • Annabelle Robertson Entertainment Critic
  • 2004 3 Dec
Human Spirit Triumphs in "I Am David"

Release Date:  December 3, 2004
Rating:  PG (for thematic elements and violent content)
Genre:  Action/Adventure
Run Time: 1 hr. 35 min.
Director:  Paul Feig
Actors:   Maria Bonnevie, James Caviezel, Paul Feig, Joan Plowright, Lucy Russell

Would you be able to escape from a concentration camp and journey on foot across Europe, even if you were only 12 years old?  This is the question posed by “I Am David,” a post-WWII drama that will give families ample opportunity to discuss questions of theodicy – or why God allows evil.

Adapted from the acclaimed 1963 children’s novel “North to Freedom” by Anne Holm, the film recounts the story of an adolescent boy named David (Ben Tibber) who escapes from a Bulgarian concentration camp in 1952.  With nothing more than a compass, a loaf of bread, a sealed letter and instructions to carry the letter to Copenhagen, Denmark, the young boy must not only survive but also travel thousands of miles on foot.  After a harrowing escape, he makes his way to the coast then hops an ocean liner bound for Italy.  Tossed overboard by a sailor, he swims to shore and begins walking toward Scandinavia.

As he traverses country after country, David is haunted by nightmares of a fellow prisoner and mentor, Johannes (Jim Caviezel) who saved his life.  Having spent his entire life in a prison camp, he must learn basic skills, like using silverware and bathing.  But David’s biggest lesson comes when he realizes that to survive, he must do the very thing he was warned never to do – trust people.

Emmy-nominated director Paul Feig is best known for his acclaimed but short-lived NBC show “Freaks and Geeks.”  Shot in Bulgaria, this is his first major film, and was clearly made on a small budget.  Although the pacing is slow, the cinematography is nice, with vistas of the sea, fields and European countryside.  The story is engaging, although its plot points are erratic and contribute to a pacing problem.  Some of this may be due to the fact that the story is based on a children’s novel, however.

The most significant problem is the film’s failure to explain the circumstances of this Bulgarian concentration camp, or why they still exist so many years after WWII.  The assumption is that viewers will know about Stalin’s concentration camps, which enslaved tens of thousands for many years after the war.  In essence, the brutal dictator made war against his own people, assassinating anyone that he perceived as a threat, such as the bourgeoisie, while allowing others to starve to death or rot in prisons across Eastern Europe.  Holm avoided these explanations in her novel, which may be the reason for Feig’s decision to exclude them.  Unfortunately, however, in so doing, he leaves a gaping historical hole that is unlikely to be filled by most audiences.

Tibber, a newcomer, is too bland to add much to the film’s pacing.  However, children and adolescents will relate to his character’s fears and naïveté, as well as the many obstacles he must face.  As always, Caviezel (“The Passion of the Christ,” “Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius”) is superb, but his time onscreen is disappointingly limited.  Joan Plowright (“Enchanted April,” “101 Dalmatians”) as Sophie, an Englishwoman who comes to David’s aide, is also excellent.  

The best part of the film is the first half, during which we watch David escape and are introduced to various characters during tense flashbacks.  With the exception of one flashback – which overlaps its climax with a previous one, giving us not one but two climactic flashbacks – these are well done and add greatly to the story, providing important contrast to the gentle ambling of the film’s second half.  The film ends somewhat abruptly, however.  I would have liked more of a wrap-up, particularly as it pertains to David’s benefactor and his relationship to the family.  I would also have liked to have seen more of Maria Bonnevie, a Swedish actress whose cinematic presence as David’s mother is luminous.

Despite its imperfections, the film nevertheless tells an important story about the triumph of the human spirit over unimaginable adversities.  It shows us a picture of Soviet communism at its worst, warning us of its dangers.  And it teaches us the importance of hope. 

Overall, a solid effort at family entertainment that deserves to be seen, and which will be enjoyed across the generations.
AUDIENCE:  Mature adolescents


  • Drugs/Alcohol Content:  Mild.  Characters have wine with meal in several scenes, in the European tradition.
  • Language/Profanity:    None.
  • Sexual Content/Nudity:   Mild.  Boy bathes nude in outdoor pond, but no nudity visible.  Brief glimpse of pornographic magazine covers from 1952, with no nudity.
  • Violence:    Heavy.  Wartime images of concentration camps that include beatings, hard physical labor, shootings (offscreen), physical punishment, parents being dragged away from children.