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Movie Reviews : 'Debajo del Mundo': Ode to Will to Survive

October 21, 1988|Kevin Thomas

"Debajo del Mundo" ("Under the World") is an eloquent ode to the will to survive. Set in wartime Poland and drawn from actual events told to Argentine writer-directors Beda Docampo Feijoo and Juan Bautista Stagnaro, the film was shot in Spanish with Czechoslovakia standing in for Poland.

So immediately compelling is "Debajo del Mundo" (at the Music Hall) that you forget you're hearing Spanish when you're supposed to be hearing Polish. (The makers of this quietly overpowering film are best known for having collaborated with director Maria Luisa Bemberg on the script for her 1984 Oscar-nominated "Camila.")

It is September, 1942. A saddened Polish baron gathers his Jewish farm workers to tell them that his attempts to intercede with the local German commandant on their behalf have at last failed and that they must report for deportation to the Ukraine.

Nachman (Sergio Renan) tells his wife Liba (Barbara Mugica) and three sons Baruj (Oscar Ferrigno), Josef (Gabriel Rovito) and Szachna (Bruno Stagnaro) that they must accept their fate--that they will be guilty of pride to do otherwise. Baruj and Josef, who appear to be in their late teens, defy their father and insist on trying to survive in the forest. Nachman yields only in order to keep his family together.

Thus begins a harrowing, suspenseful odyssey told with simplicity and reverence. The proud Nachman says at first that it's beneath his dignity to live under ground in the bunker his sons have hastily dug near a cluster of trees. Yet dignity is the quality that none of the Nachmans, and those who follow them into the crude bunker, ever lose. In their struggle for survival, they also never lose their humanity, despite being caked with mud and clad in rags. They learn to put up with lice and a lack of privacy, to live off the land in all kinds of weather and to be prepared to move on at a moment's notice.

Their rare contacts with non-Jewish Poles are free of bitterness and, as a result, constitute a silent rebuke to the inhuman conditions they have been forced to endure.

In depicting all of these conditions, "Debajo del Mundo" (rated R for adult themes and situations) is unsparing and bleak, although not morbid. There is a selflessness in the playing of an ensemble cast that suggests each member felt it was a privilege to tell the story of a group of people who met extreme adversity with unfailing love and courage. As a neighbor remarks upon their decision to disobey evacuation orders: "Dying is easy. What is difficult is to survive."

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