Why has young David (Ben Tibber) spent most of his short life in a Bulgarian labor camp? He doesn’t know, and neither do we. As the title suggests, I Am David wants us to experience David’s story through the eyes of a young boy who has never known anything but this camp, except for a few flashbulb memories of a fair-haired woman he knew in another life.
Why there is a labor camp at all in Bulgaria in 1952, and why David is in it, is nothing he knows. What he knows is that the camp is run by a fierce, frightening man (Hristo Shopov, Pilate from The Passion of the Christ), and a kind-hearted prisoner Johannes (Jim Caviezel) took David under his wing and helped him survive as best he could.
He knows that one day he was taken aside and quietly told how to escape — to climb the electrified fence in the 30 seconds it would be shut down, and that beyond the fence he would find a stash of provisions for the journey to a ship that would take him to Italy, from which he should try to make his way to Denmark.
How the stash of provisions was planted beyond the fence, and why he should make his way to Denmark, David doesn’t know, and neither do we. His mind is a jumble of confused memories, and we piece his past together along with him. Writer-director Paul Feig (TV’s "Freaks and Geeks"), adapting the celebrated 1963 novel North to Freedom by Danish writer Anne Holm, shrewdly structures David’s journey as a puzzle, slowly reconstructing David’s past as he moves toward his future.
The film is at its best in the taut opening and in 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.
Scattered positive religious elements — a prayer to St. Elizabeth after receiving a holy card; grace before a family meal; a revelation in a church — accent the sense of providence over David’s journey and add a layer of meaning to the theme that David must learn to trust that there is good in the world as well as bad. I Am David is admirable and worthwhile, if not quite totally satisfying.
It isn’t only Jim Caviezel, the Christ of The Passion, here another nobly self-sacrificial prisoner who freely allows himself to be wrongly condemned in order to save another. It’s also the actor who plays the complex, conflicted official who suspects his prisoner is innocent but must pass judgment anyway — Pontius Pilate in The Passion, "The Man" in I Am David. In both films, the role went to Bulgarian actor Hristo Shopov.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.