Don't miss 'I am David'

Posted: Nov 26, 2004 12:00 AM

Our Thanksgiving family tradition is to go around the table and ask each person to express what he or she is thankful to God for in the year just passed. Being politically minded types, one or more of us frequently mentions that we're grateful for having been born in the United States of America.
 We will say so again this year for all the usual reasons, but with particular feeling since we have just previewed the upcoming film " I Am David," which opens in theaters on Dec. 3.

 A production of Walden Media ("Holes," "Ghosts of the Abyss"), "I am David" begins in a Bulgarian concentration camp in the early 1950s. A 12-year-old orphan boy is hauling rocks alongside other prisoners, dodging the lash of sadistic guards and considering suicide.

 An adult prisoner (portrayed by Jim Caviezel) befriends David and exhorts him to do everything possible to stay alive -- assuring the boy that there are places in the world where people are kind and life is actually worth living. We learn of David's incarceration only through sketchy flashbacks in which the boy sees his mother struggling and screaming as she is separated from him.

 Someone -- you don't discover his identity until the end of the film -- makes it possible for David to make a daring nighttime escape from the camp. His instructions are to head south to Salonika (Greece), and from there to Italy by ship. The sea route was the only way to reach Italy without passing through a communist country. Armed only with a compass, a half loaf of bread, a sealed envelope, a penknife and instructions to head north to Denmark, David makes his way from the totalitarian nightmare world of communism to the free West.

 It is a political story, but also far more. In some ways, the film is a hymn to ordinary happiness -- which those in the free world take for granted. Among the first Italians David meets is an exuberant baker who boasts that his bread is the "best in Italy," but who also notices that David, who does not even know how to smile, is no ordinary child. His attempt to help the boy backfires. An escapee from a concentration camp cannot but assume the worst of his fellow men. David's whole life has been horror and deprivation. He must learn to relax, to smile, to eat with a knife and fork, and slowly and very reluctantly, to trust.

 The acting in this film is uniformly excellent. Joan Plowright, who is marvelous at everything she does, sets a high standard. But Jim Caviezel is wonderful as well, and the child, Ben Tibber, wins your heart.

 My son Ben, who is 8, referred to the prison guards in the film as "the Nazis." It was an understandable mistake. When viciousness in uniform is presented on film, it is usually Nazis who are the villains. Hollywood has almost completely neglected the other 20th century horror, communism. And Hollywood has difficulty with complexity -- that is, with the real world in which people cannot be fit into neat categories of bad guys and good guys. This film, while clearly attempting to fill a gap left by Hollywood in portraying the misery of communism, does not fall into the same trap. Nor is it a dull, plotless political tract. It's a very human story, well told.

 " I am David" fills another gap, as well. At the moment, most of the fare available at the multiplex is either a) stuff you'd slit your throat rather than let your children see, or b) family entertainment on the order of "Jimmy Neutron" and "Spy Kids." Though I enjoy a good "Toy Story" when it comes along, it is rare indeed to find a serious film that is also moving, historically accurate, well-made and appropriate for the whole family.