The sun felt especially warm and bright as I exited Harkins Theatres Shea 14 this afternoon, and I took special note of chirping birds and bits of green in bloom. Normally I leave this particular movie theater with a single burning question: To gelato or not to gelato? But today I had something else on my mind. Sheer unbounded gratitude for the freedom to walk to my car and return home in safety.
I was still dabbing tears from my eyes as I left the theater, feeling profoundly moved and nearly breathless after watching a film called “In Darkness.” It’s based on the true story of a Polish sewer worker and petty thief named Leopold Socha who saved several Jews from certain extermination at the hands of Nazis by hiding them in the sewer system under Lvov, Poland in 1943.
The sewers, filled with filth and rats, become a sort of microcosm of society for the folks who must live there if they are to live at all. Everything we experience above ground happens below ground too — from sibling spats to sexuality — often as noise from life above seeps in. Bombs, beatings and machine guns. Even liturgical fare.
Everyday objects once taken for granted wield new power in this world. Scissors. Crayons. A fringed scarf. A raw onion. Even a belt ripped from frayed pants by a father fraught with desperation. Children see things they ought not witness. Parents make choices that they, and others, will have to live with forever. A couple delights in an odd sort of “Cinderella” moment. And adults are comforted by a little girl’s hushed lullaby.
It feels easy to tell the good guys from the bad as “In Darkness” opens, but things change in a hurry as a simple man is confronted with complicated choices. And days spent in hiding wear down body, mind and soul. Still, nothing in this film feels contrived — a credit to both screenwriter David F. Shamoon and director Agnieszka Holland.
“My main hope,” shares Shamoon, “is that Loepold Socha’s example will inspire others as much as it has inspired me. Like many of the other Righteous, he was no saint, which is what makes this a universal story. He was just an ordinary man who made some crucial choices that led to extraordinary deeds.”
Films that capture the complexity of human nature, at once beautiful and ugly, are rare — as are films that question so exquisitely the place of God in the human picture. Parents, in particular, will appreciate the choices made and chances taken by those in the sewers — and leave wondering how they’d act living either in the sewers or above them.
Note: “In Darkness” is an Agnieszka Holland film from Sony Pictures Classics starring Robert Wieckiewicz, Benno Fürmann, Agnieszka Grochowska, Maria Schrader and Herbert Knaup. Rating: R. Languages: Polish/German/Yiddish/Ukranian (English subtitles). Click here to read the reflections of those whose directing, cinematography, music, production design, costume design and editing make this such a truly exceptional work.
Coming up: Exploring the Anne Frank Center’s new home, Wall of words, A journey home