If you have seen The Passion of The Christ, you may feel a strange sense of deja vu while watching I Am David. Although the film, based on the 1963 novel by Anne Holm, is mainly about a boy who treks across Europe after escaping from a Communist labor camp in the years following World War II, the film also includes several flashbacks and dream sequences that include Jim Caviezel and Hristo Shopov. Caviezel (Passion's Jesus) plays Johannes, a fellow prisoner who befriends and stands up for the lad, while Shopov (Passion's Pontius Pilate) plays the commander, known only as "The Man," whose brutality just may hide a conflicted conscience.



Seeing these two actors stare into each other's eyes once again, and in roles so similar to the parts they played in that biblical flick, one is tempted to think that I Am David's producers—including Walden Media, the company behind the upcoming Narnia movie—were trying to cash in on Mel Gibson's success when they greenlit this project. But in fact, the film was finished and shown at the Cannes Film Festival as far back as May 2003, when The Passion was still being filmed and its box-office prospects were anybody's guess.

So, while the studio may have sat on the film for so long partly to exploit this coincidence of casting, I Am David does deserve to be seen on its own terms—or, at least, as an adaptation of the book. Those who come to the film blind will find a simple and harmless tale of one boy's first taste of freedom, albeit a tale that lacks the gravitas and historical resonance of, say, Walt Disney's Night Crossing and similar films that were made back when the Cold War was still a reality. But the first thing that will strike those who have read the book is how different the film is, in intent and feel, from its source material.

David finds himself on quite the adventure after his prison escape

David finds himself on quite the adventure after his prison escape

The novel is written in a highly subjective style that sees the world exclusively through David's eyes; it notices what a child would notice, and no more. Even the people who run the concentration camp are referred to merely as "they" or "them"; at his age, David isn't particularly concerned with political labels, and the sparse vocabulary heightens the distance that David tries to put between himself and the authorities, which in turn influences the extreme caution he practices around other adults after he has fled the camp.

Film, however, is a more objective medium—instead of looking at the world through David's eyes, we can observe it for ourselves—and writer-director Paul Feig (creator of TV's Freaks and Geeks) makes some details more concrete, while making others more cryptic. The story now begins explicitly in Bulgaria in 1952, but the identity of the man who engineers David's escape—from giving him the exact timing of the guards' shifts to planting a bundle of necessities in the forest that encircles the camp—is hidden from the viewer, even though it is made plain in the novel from the beginning. And this, in turn, tends to distance us even more from David and his thought processes.

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Jim Caviezel plays Johannes, who helps David in his journey

Jim Caviezel plays Johannes, who helps David in his journey

It does not help that David is played by relative newcomer Ben Tibber, whose perpetually perplexed facial expressions reflect neither the sense that he is haunted by his experiences in the camp nor the resolve that we might expect of a boy who has had to grow up much faster than most people his age. The adults who meet David as he makes his way to Denmark tend to describe him as sad-looking or too mature for his age, but this doesn't quite ring true; Tibber, who played Tiny Tim opposite Patrick Stewart's Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol a few years back, seems more confused than anything else.

The film does start off on a promising stylistic note, as David makes his getaway under cover of night and soldiers shoot flares into the dark sky; the impressive visuals are nicely complemented by the exotic vocals on Stewart Copeland's score. But as the boy stows away on an Italian freighter, and then hitch-hikes north, his travels grow increasingly, well, pedestrian—and the story takes a few shortcuts, as if it knew its young audience would not have patience for the journey, by turning on a couple of pretty big coincidences.

In fairness, the film does have some amusing moments, such as when an American (played by Feig) whose car has run out of gas mistakes David for one of the locals and begins speaking to him in garbled Italian—and David, who happened to learn several languages in the camp, can understand everything the man says. Later, David comes across a kindly old artist (Joan Plowright) who tells him she would like to paint his face, and the boy, who knows nothing about portraiture, replies, "What color do you want to paint my face?"

Joan Plowright plays an artist who befriends David along the way

Joan Plowright plays an artist who befriends David along the way

The reasons for David's internment in the camp are left obscure, but they have something to do with the "beliefs" of his parents. The novel makes an implicit link between faith and freedom, and the film does too, though it is more subtle; instead of praying regularly to "the God of the still waters and green pastures" as he does in the book, the David of the film prays to the patron saint of bakers after one gives him a picture of her. In another scene, a family that hosts David and treats him to his first big meal says grace; and near the end, the boy enters a church, where he has a flashback to an incident between the Caviezel and Shopov characters that fits so, so well with their characters in The Passion.

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Whoops, there I go, bringing in that other film again. Well, it can't be helped. I Am David is okay family fare, and while some parents might wish the film had more emotional depth, they will probably appreciate the gentle humor and delicate restraint Feig brings to this story. Then they can introduce their children to the book.

Talk About It

Discussion starters
  1. Johannes tells David it is important to stay alive, so that one can change things. Does David change anything? Does Johannes change anything? Is it possible to change things by dying?

  2. The artist who paints David's picture tells him, "Most people are good. They have family and friends, and they just want to live their lives as happily as they can." Is this an adequate understanding of "goodness"? Do you agree that most people are good? Explain.

  3. The artist also tells David, "There will always be bad people in this world, and you'll usually know them when you meet them, and sometimes you won't." Is this a fair statement? How do you think it is possible to distinguish "good" people from "bad" people?

  4. Why do you think the person who planned David's escape helped him the way he did? Is he a "good" person or a "bad" person? A bit of both? How can you tell the difference?

Also note that there are discussion materials and educational curriculae on the film's official website.

The Family Corner

For parents to consider

I Am David is rated PG for thematic elements and violent content. Soldiers pursue David and kill at least one of David's fellow prisoners in the concentration camp, and later on, David witnesses a clash between Communist protestors and Italian police; however, the serious violence is kept off screen.

Photos © Copyright Lions Gate Films

What Other Critics Are Saying
compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet

from Film Forum, 12/09/04

Director Paul Feig's film I Am David is based on North to Freedom, an acclaimed novel by Anne Holm, set in the 1950s. The story follows David (Ben Tibber), a 12-year-old prisoner who has been separated from his parents and is growing up alone in a Bulgarian labor camp. He befriends another prisoner (portrayed by The Passion of The Christ's Jim Caviezel) who plays an important role in helping him escape the prison.

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Time out! If there was a contest for Most Bizarre Casting Choice of 2004, it would very likely go to the casting of Hristo Shopov as the concentration camp commandant who carries out a harsh judgment on Caviezel's character. Shopov played Pontius Pilate in The Passion of The Christ, where he carried out an even harsher judgment on Caviezel's Jesus. The Passion's Saint Peter, Francesco de Vito, also shows up, playing an Italian sailor who has compassion for young David. Two other cast members, Matt Patresi and Paco Reconti, appear in both films. And Shaila Rubin, appearing here as the owner of a vineyard, served as the casting director for The Passion of The Christ. (Don't get your hopes up—Monica Belucci is nowhere to be seen.)

What's going on here? Is Feig capitalizing on The Passion's success? No. Feig assembled this cast before Mel Gibson made The Passion. Feig told Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films), "We made this film in 2002. We cast everyone out of Rome, same as Mel. And so when Mel came to Rome, he got one of the actresses from my film—Shaila Ruben—as his casting director. So he ended up getting a lot of the same actors we had worked with."

Okay—back to the story. After a tense prison break, David flees into Greece and eventually to Italy, carrying only a knife, a compass, and a mysterious sealed envelope, hoping to find a better future and some answers about the fate of his parents. Along the way he encounters troublesome police, a friendly baker, the daughter of a wealthy family, and a compassionate painter, and he learns a thing or two about trust.

Personally, I found I Am David handsomely filmed, and young Ben Tibber is an interesting talent. Caviezel makes an undeveloped character surprisingly memorable, and the wonderful Joan Plowright gives a warm and likeable performance in the movie's last chapters. Feig's central theme—that it's not a bad idea to trust other people—is an honorable one. But the film moves rapidly through short episodes that introduce us to a variety of forgettable characters, develop very little tension or intrigue, and culminate ultimately in an abrupt, sentimental finale. The film fails to fill in enough historical context for us to get our bearings. Overall, it's a good-looking piece of cinema that lacks one essential element—a compelling narrative.

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"I Am David is okay family fare," says Peter T. Chattaway (Christianity Today Movies), "and while some parents might wish the film had more emotional depth, they will probably appreciate the gentle humor and delicate restraint Feig brings to this story. Then they can introduce their children to the book."

Andrew Coffin (World) calls it "a solid, middle-of-the-road production that makes for worthwhile, if not indispensable, family viewing.

Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) echoes that opinion: "I Am David is admirable and worthwhile, if not quite totally satisfying. The film is at its best in the taut opening and in the third act, when the pieces finally come together. In between, the episodic story sags a bit. What keeps things fitfully interesting is the newness of the outside world in David's eyes, though some of his experiences, notably the rescue of a young girl trapped in a burning barn, are too obviously artificial."

Rhonda Handlon (Plugged In) says, "I Am David is one of those rare cinematic jewels … that leads us to ponder life's important questions, builds up our faith in mankind and inspires us to invest in others."

"The most significant problem is the film's failure to explain the circumstances of this Bulgarian concentration camp," says Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk), "or why they still exist so many years after WWII. [But] despite its imperfections, the film nevertheless tells an important story about the triumph of the human spirit over unimaginable adversities. It shows us a picture of Soviet communism at its worst, warning us of its dangers. And it teaches us the importance of hope."

"At times, I Am David feels like Steven Spielberg's Empire of the Sun, which also traces the path of a young man torn from his family amid civil strife," writes Cliff Vaughn (EthicsDaily). "David doesn't play out on the scope of Empire, but it is touching nevertheless … a splendid film that young and old can experience together."

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says, "Feig's visually handsome adaptation … is, plainly put, a wonderful movie. The small, simply told tale is intelligent yet unpretentious, tender without being trite, edifying as well as engaging. It is the perfect antidote for the formulaic and toxic excess of many mainstream movies."

Mainstream critics are not exactly enthralled, but they're not particularly troubled by it either.

I Am David
Our Rating
2 Stars - Fair
Average Rating
(6 user ratings)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
PG (for thematic elements and violent content)
Directed By
Paul Feig
Run Time
1 hour 30 minutes
Ben Tibber, Jim Caviezel, Joan Plowright
Theatre Release
December 03, 2004 by Lions Gate Films
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