The term "epic" at the movies is almost invariably connected to landscape: sweeping deserts, frozen steppes, a North Atlantic festooned with icebergs, the empty expanse of the universe. Just as her "In Darkness" contradicts the conventions of the Holocaust movie, director Agnieszka Holland also reprograms space: This Oscar nominee for best foreign language film is an epic, and no less of one for taking place largely in the claustrophobic confines of a Polish sewer system.
It is there that the loathsome Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz), who works underground when not robbing his neighbors' houses, takes a group of local Jews when the occupying Nazis begin their desperate crackdown in 1943. Some have money, some don't. Socha takes whatever they have. This is not a philanthropic enterprise for him; he is prepared to give them up as soon as they run out of collateral.
And they're not an easy group: The brilliance of Holland's construct, what separates it from so much Holocaust literature and film, is that almost no one is noble. Even below ground, the petty resentments of life in Lvov play out, albeit in concentrated form, endangering everyone's safety, and providing a potent portrait of commentary on humanity, and the hardy resilience of its flaws.
A Holocaust tale without some manner of salvation would be a pretty pointless exercise, and just as Socha gradually refers to his clients as "my Jews," the movie offers glimmers of hope -- not about fate, of course, but about people's capacity for sacrifice.
"In Darkness," while grim, transcends history, and also the sewer, which is photographed with such precision by Holland's countrywoman, Jolanta Dylewska, that you can feel the filthy sweat on its walls.
PLOT In 1943 Poland, a sewer worker hides a group of Jews, putting everyone's life on the line. RATING 3.5 stars
CAST Robert Wieckiewicz, Kinga Preis, Benno Furmann
BOTTOM LINE Absorbing thriller that deftly defies the conventions of the Holocaust film. (Polish, with English subtitles)