Picks and Pans Review: Triumph of the Spirit

updated 01/22/1990 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/22/1990 01:00AM

Willem Dafoe, Edward James Olmos

Based on the true story of a Jewish Greek boxer who fought fellow concentration camp inmates as entertainment for his German captors, this is a grueling film.

Dafoe as the boxer, Robert Loggia as his father and Olmos as a gypsy who has become a Nazi trustee, are often stunningly effective. The film, which was shot partly on location in Poland at the Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps, has a relentlessly gray-brown tint that seems the very color of hopelessness.

A parallel plot involves Wendy (Sammy and Rosie Get Laid) Gazelle as Dafoe's girlfriend, who is arrested at the same time he is and held in the women's wing of the camp where he fights.

So much of the film's eloquence is visual, however, that it might as well have been silent. Typical is a wordless sequence in which Olmos, recognizing that Dafoe has become a force to be acknowledged, offers Dafoe a tattered bit of cigarette and Dafoe gazes at it, dumbfounded at the richness it represents in the camp, then slowly savors his first drag.

Screenwriters Andrzej Krakowski and Laurence (Dynasty) Heath can't get past the level of such lines as "How can we do this to our brothers?" And director Robert (Dominick and Eugene) Young burdens his cast with an obtrusive background score—as if the sight of bodies being fed into an incinerator isn't moving enough without a florid orchestral theme on the sound track. (Young also leaves unexplored the film's most promising twist: what seems to be a developing understanding between Dafoe and the Nazi officer who becomes his boxing sponsor.)

The title, of course, is a rejoinder to the 1936 Nazi propaganda film directed by Leni Riefenstahl, Triumph of the Will. Snatches of a Riefenstahl-like film appear on a Greek movie-theater screen during one scene. Young and his cast indeed offer a portrait of the human spirit—particularly the spirit of survival—but their too often slow, almost tedious movie doesn't pay that spirit the homage it deserves. (R)

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