The Wife-O-Meter and I had a minor disagreement over this one. She liked it a lot more than I did, saying it was a powerful statement about growing up Jewish in Poland during the Holocaust of the Second World War. I didn't think it said much about the main character's condition that I hadn't heard or seen before, and I thought the whole affair was rather slow and depressing. Naturally, you will see her rating at the bottom of the review and hear mostly her side of the story. I may be dumb but I ain't crazy.
"Edges of the Lord" won the Best Screenplay prize at the 2001 Polish Film Festival for its writer and director Yurek Bogayevicz. It was released theatrically in Poland and various other countries in 2001 and 2002, and then released on video in Europe in 2003. It is a dubious mark of the faith its American distributor had in it that not only did Miramax/Buena Vista fail to release the picture to theaters domestically, they waited until 2005 to issue it on DVD.
While it is understandable that BV wouldn't want to take a chance pouring enormous theatrical distribution and advertising money into a small European import, costs that would easily have surpassed the $7,500,000 it took to make the film in the first place, it is also a somewhat surprising decision, considering the popularity of the film's stars, Haley Joel Osment and Willem Dafoe. These are not names that would normally be thrown away on a direct-to-video release. It must have put BV executives in a bind: Do we release the picture to the art-house crowd as a small prestige film or toss it to the video crowd and see what happens. The latter won out.
After making several pictures in America, Bogayevicz returned to his native Poland and filmed "Edges of the Lord" on location. The authenticity of the surroundings helps contribute to the film's sense of realism. The story concerns a Jewish boy, Romek (Osment), about twelve years old and living in Nazi-occupied Poland in 1943, whose parents send him for his safety from the city to the country to stay with a Catholic family. For the duration of the War, the boy is no longer to be Jewish. Romek doesn't know it, but he will probably never see his parents again.
The transaction is conducted by a sympathetic parish priest (Dafoe), who arranges for Romek to pretend to be a relative of a Catholic-Polish farm family. It means, however, that Romek must learn a new religion and practice it well in order for the plan to work.
Interestingly, however, the story is not a typical Holocaust tale. It is not about the unmistakable horrors of war or the near genocide of the European Jews, nor is it to any great degree about Jewish-Catholic relations. It is, instead, about the effects of these conditions on a single boy, a boy who is facing a new outward world of social and political unrest while at the same time facing his own entrance into adolescence, his own internal world of personal change. It is this and Romek's interaction with his new family, with the parish priest, and, most important, with the other young people of the rural community that are at the heart of the story.
Along the way, Bogayevicz extends himself perhaps a tad too much in attempting some heavy-handed symbolism. As a part of their catechism, the priest assigns Romek and several of his friends the task of taking upon themselves the person of one of Christ's twelve apostles and learning as much as possible about that man by living as him. You can see in a minute that while most of the children are surprised to learn that the apostles and Christ were all Jews, it is Romek who feels the part of the "outsider," the Judas in their group. (None of the other children knows that Romek is actually Jewish.) Another of the children, Tolo (Liam Hess), the youngest in the family that Romek is staying with, decides to become not an apostle but Christ himself. This gives the filmmaker a chance to comment on the loss of innocence that comes with social, political, and personal upheaval, but it also becomes painfully overobvious when the child insists upon being "crucified" and later makes an ultimate sacrifice. And there is Maria (Ola Frycz), a girl of about fourteen who is the constant companion of the boys. She is supposedly the embodiment of Mary Magdalene, the woman who for centuries the Catholic Church said was a prostitute cleansed of her demons by Christ, and who then became a de facto member of the apostleship. The Church only denounced its accusations against Mary Magdalene in the twentieth century (there being no scriptural evidence for the charges), but the myth of her fallen state persists, mirrored by the young girl in the story being the mischievous, promiscuous flit who falls for Romek and tempts him in the barn.
Leaving the symbolism behind and the differing religious views, which are hardly touched upon in the film, anyhow, it the relationships among the various people in the plot that sets the movie apart. Romek learns that he must trust certain people and not rely on others. More significant, he learns that most people are filled with both good and evil, as his adopted family and the country folk around him attest. The only drawback to the effectiveness of this theme is Bogayevicz's portrayal of the German Nazis, who are presented as universally wicked. I don't suppose a movie made in Poland by a Polish native could have been expected to do otherwise, but it's hard to believe that every German soldier during WWII, without exception, was a murderous butcher with absolutely no moral conscience. Perhaps in Bogayevicz's mind these soldiers represent the very unthinking crowds who crucified Christ; I don't know.
In any case, the first third of the film sets up Romek's circumstances, the second third describes his childhood play and games with the rural children he befriends, and the final third is a harrowing adventure into the darker reaches of the human psyche. It's a movie that starts grimly, lightens up slightly, and then gets very gloomy, indeed. The movie appropriately represents an awakening for Romek in his quest for self discovery, his introduction to manhood, and his loss of innocence. His world of childhood games is over, and he enters the adult world of corruption, war, and death.
A keep-case blurb announces "Edges of the Lord" as being "In the tradition of 'Life Is Beautiful,'" but I would suggest it is no such thing. Yes, they are both set during the days of the Holocaust and both concern young boys, but there the comparison ends. "Edges of the Lord," while not as good a movie as "Life Is Beautiful," defines a much darker journey for Romek than anything experienced in the earlier, Italian Oscar winner. Nor should "Edges of the Lord" be considered in the same league as "The Diary of Anne Frank" or "Schindler's List," both more moving films and better told. "Edges of the Lord" hasn't the same impact as these other films, although it attempts similar lofty goals.
Incidentally, the movie's title derives from the fact that the priest never gives Romek an actual Communion wafer; he only gives him the crust, the edges of the dough, which have not been blessed. Again, it indicates that Romek is a part of yet separate from the rest of his new community, just as at this time of his life he is neither child nor adult.
Moreover, the film gets an R rating for what the ratings board calls "some violence and sexual content." It's as ludicrous a rating as any film has ever gotten, the violence relatively mild and the sexual content mature but restrained. When one considers the smutty innuendo that goes on endlessly in many PG-13 rated films, and then considers that "Edges of the Lord" requires an accompanying parent or guardian for anyone under seventeen years old, the mind boggles.
The film was released to theaters in Europe in a 1.85:1 screen ratio, rendered here pretty closely at approximately 1.74:1 across my standard-screen HD Sony TV. The transfer is good but not exceptional, utilizing a reasonably high bit rate and enhanced for 16x9 televisions. Colors are especially opulent, deep, and bright. Sometimes, there is a tendency of the picture to look too dark, everything a bit too plush for ultimate realism, but it is not distracting, and it may have been a quality of the original print. Definition is only average, never razor sharp, but the image is notably free of grain, halos, pixilation, or moiré effects. The outdoor shots show up in vivid hues, while the indoor shots retain a reasonable amount of detail.
The audio is rendered via a rather ordinary Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo. The rear channels will be fed whatever your receiver or amplifier is set up do to simulate surround sound. In Dolby Pro Logic, you'll get a rather diffuse mono signal in the back, adding the merest hint of ambiance reinforcement to the musical soundtrack. Otherwise, since the film is largely dialogue driven, expect very little information to be fed to the back and a limited stereo spread in the front. In its favor, the sound is clean and clear, with a modest frequency and dynamic range. It serves its purpose and behaves itself unobtrusively.
These are probably the easiest extras I've ever had to review because there aren't any. As this film is being released directly to video in the United States, Buena Vista apparently had little faith in it whatsoever, as evidenced by their reluctance to put any more money into the project than they had to. In any case, the disc includes a main menu; twelve scene selections; Sneak Peeks at other BV/Miramax titles, including "Finding Neverland"; English as the only available spoken language; and French and Spanish subtitles, with English captions for the hearing impaired. You'd better like the film because you're not getting much more.
"Edges of the Lord" is a gutsy little film that dares to show us an intimate, child's point of view on the horrific events of Europe during World War II. It doesn't reveal very much that we didn't already know or couldn't guess, but it pulls no punches, either. Its well-worn coming-of-age themes still carry weight; the performances are good; the dialogue is true; the cinematography is impressive; and while the direction is sometimes lax, the movie is not without its tensions, especially in the final thirty minutes. It has its rewards.