I am David (2003)
Director: Paul Feig.
Starring: Ben Tibber (David), Jim Caviezel (Johannes), Joan Plowright (Sophie), Hristo Shopov (The Man), Silvia De Santis (Elsa), Paco Reconti (Giovanni), Roberto Attias (Baker), Francesco De Vito (Roberto), Paul Feig (American Man), Lucy Russell (American Woman), Maria Bonnevie (David's Mother), Viola Carinci (Maria), Marin Jivkov (Cecha), Robert Syulev (Angelo), Alessandro Sperduti (Carlo).
in 1952 a boy escapes from a Stalinist labor camp in Bulgaria and begins a dangerous trek to Denmark
"In the years after World War II, many people in Eastern Europe were sent to forced labor camps for disagreeing with their new governments. Because of this, families were torn apart. Life in these camps was very harsh, and escape was not an option. And yet, for one boy named David it was his only hope."
Belene Prison Camp, Bulgaria, 1952. A man tells David that he must escape the gulag tonight. Get out of the camp and travel when it's dark to get out of Bulgaria. They will be everywhere waiting to arrest David. He must be very careful or he will be caught and send back to the gulag. If David makes it across the border, he has to get this envelope to Denmark. He is to head to Salonika, Greece and stow away on a ship going to Italy. From Italy, he is to travel north to Denmark. He must get the envelope to the authorities in Denmark. David is not to open the envelope. The man goes on saying he knows that David has lived his entire live in this camp, but there is a world outside the camp. It is, however, a very dangerous world and David is to trust no one.
At night David works his way over to the west fence. When he sees the signal he will have 30 seconds to get over the fence before the electricity is turned back on. He watches for the signal and then just does manage to get over the fence before the electricity is turned back on. He makes it into the woods. There he goes over to a log and digs up a pack with necessities for his journey. One of the necessities is a compass, which he is to use to go south to Salonika (aka Thessalonica). [Salonika is in northeast Greece and is the second-largest city in Greece and the capital of Greek Macedonia, the administrative region of Central Macedonia and the Decentralized Administration of Macedonia and Thrace.]
A convoy truck stops along the road at night. David finds a truck only carrying boxes and hops aboard it. He encounters two stowaways there, but they only motion for him to keep quiet.
Flashback. David is pushing a wheelbarrow in the camp. He sees a guard abusing a prisoner. Being distracted, his wheelbarrow tips over spilling the stones on the ground. Now the guard is coming over to David. A man who looks after David rushes over to intervene.
Back to the present. The truck is stopped and the guards throw the two men out of the back of the truck. David manages to sneak out from under the canvas covering on the side of the truck. He rolls downhill and under a tree. He makes it to the Greece/Bulgaria border. David digs underneath the wire and pulls himself through to the other side. It's a close call for him for he just did get away from the guards.
David makes it to Salonika. It's an Italian ship called the Bella-Maria. David climbs up the tow rope and makes it on deck. He then goes down a hatch to a storage area. His only companions are some rats.
David dreams of his mother. He sees his protector Johannes and asks if he's dead? No. David tells Johannes that he is afraid. Then he asks what's he going to find in Denmark? Freedom.
A crewman discovers David and says he has to report all stowaways to the captain. David tells him he can have his pearl-handled knife if the man doesn't report him. So the guy takes the deal. He says when they reach port, he will lower David into the water and he can swim to shore.
Getting close to shore, David puts on a life vest and is lowered into the water. He's quite a ways out, but the currents will push him toward the shore. He lands on a isolated patch of the shore. He sleeps on the grass.
Flashback. David asks Johannes if he knows anything about his parents? Johannes says no, nothing. The boy says he wishes he was dead, but Johannes scolds him for thinking that way.
Back to the present. A baker tells David if he helps him, he will give him a loaf of bread. He tells David to wait until he picks out the freshest loaf for him. David is suspicious of everyone. He sees the baker speaking to two policemen. The policemen come in, but David runs for his life and gets away.
In trying to get away from a van, David runs into the wood and falls. He rolls downhill until he's stopped by a tree. The only trouble is that his compass has been broken. And now without his compass, he doesn't know which way is north. He prays to St. Elizabeth, the patron saint of bakers, because the baker told David that St. Elizabeth will help a person out. David climbs up a tree and looks around.
He starts walking. A dog chases him up on top of a shed. The old woman dog owner says the boy is just in time. She pays him two lira to take a basket of wine to the third farm up. So David goes looking for the farm. When he gets there he sees a party going on that contains a feast. The lady takes the basket of wine and balls David out for being late. She says he looks like a street urchin and tells him to scat. So David leaves. He remembers when his mother and father were taken from him by force.
David runs across two Americans whose car is out of gas. The man tells David if that he will go get them some gasoline, he will give him a bit tip. So David runs back to the gas station.
Now with his big tip, David loads up on food. Then he starts walking north again. He comes to a field with lots of sunflowers. He runs into a bully that hits him. He runs away from the fellow.
Flashback. David tells Johannes that he wants to escape. He wants to get away before they have a chance to kill him.
Back to the present. David hears a scream for help. He sees a barn on fire. He runs to the barn, opens the door and sees a girl tied to a chair. He unties the girl and gets her out. He is a bit overcome by the smoke and goes unconscious. When he is awakened, he is greeted by the girl whose life he saved. She says her name is Maria and she thanks David for saving her life. She says David is very brave. Maria's mother comes in and kisses David's forehead. She says he saved her Maria and for that she owes him her life. Mother also wants David to stay a few days because the doctor said David needs sleep.
David comes down for lunch, but he meets the bully again. The guy apologizes saying that he thought that David was one of the boys who stold Maria's bike. The boy then asks the David please not to tell his parents about the bullying incident. David consents.
At the dining table, the father comes over to David and tells him it's an honor to have David in their house. Mother has David sit by Maria. Maria holds his hand under the table. David is very hungry so he really downs the spaghetti. After lunch in the mansion, Maria and David take a stroll in the huge gardens. David tells her that he doesn't have a family, so Maria says that David can be an honorary member of their family. Later David tells her that he's going to Denmark.
The father and mother try to question David about his parents and where is it that he's going. David says he's going with the circus. The father approaches David saying that he thinks the lad is lying to him and David thinks that the guy is going to strike him as the guards did in the camp. The couple now have to scramble to reassure David that they are not going to hurt him. They stop questioning him and let him leave the room.
David goes and takes a bath. He uses the soap and that makes him remember back to an incident that happened at the camp.
Flashback. David stole a piece of soap out of the desk drawer of one of the officers. And now the Russians want to know is who stole the soap. Johannes sees that David has the soap in his hand. The Russians are about to shoot David, but Johannes quickly takes the soap from David and shows he has the soap. An officer sees it and says the man has the soap, not the kid. Johannes is shot down immediately.
Back to the present. David lays a religious card of St. Elizabeth that the baker gave him on Maria's bed. He comments to the saint: "I don't deserve to have you look after me anymore. I don't deserve anything good."
David leaves. He does a lot of hitch-hiking on his way to Denmark. In an Italian city the police try to stop a demonstration in progress. The sight of the police frightens David. A demonstrator throws a stone at a policeman's back and then runs away. The policeman turns around and sees David standing there. He thinks it was David who hit him with the stone and puts David in the paddy wagon. David sits down and takes out the package from Johannes. The seal is now broken. So David starts looking inside the envelope. He see a passport of sorts with his photo in it when he was younger. He finds other photos of himself.
David figures out how to use his gauze protecting his burn wound to open the not locked handle on the paddy wagon door. He loops it around the handle and opens the door. He just does make it out before the policeman arrives.
Back on the road again, a trucker stops for David. The driver is the crewman who helped David to escape and get to the shore of Salonika. He is happy to give David a ride. The man's name is Roberto and he tells David he's only going as far as Milan in northwest Italy, east of Turin.
David sees a woman painting a landscape. He goes over to her. Her name is Sophie. She tells him that she wants to paint his picture. David agrees to sit for her. Sophie had a boy that looked a lot like David. She says she lives just over the border in Switzerland. David takes a ride north with her into Switzerland. They have to go through the border check, but Sophie bluffs her way out of Italy on behalf of getting David through.
At her home, Sophie gives David some lunch. Sophie asks where does David live? The answer is, nowhere. He's in the circus. Then he tells Sophie: "Please, don't turn me in." He says he wants to tell her everything, but he can't. Sophie tells him he doesn't have to tell her anything. She just wants him to know that everything will be alright. David hugs her around the neck. David sleeps in her house.
The next day David goes to the little town with Sophie. Sophie sets David right about his belief that you can't trust anyone. There are lots of good people in the world and David must be open to these good people.
He has a flashback to his prison days.
Flashback. David stole the soap, but Johannes takes it and is shot down for stealing the soap. The Russian officer who shot him had seen the exchange of the soap to Johannes from David and understood that Johannes wanted to be killed in place of the boy. And now we learn that the person talking with David about how to escape from the camp was none other than camp guard who shot Johannes, and not Johannes at all. At the time of the escape talk, Johannes was already dead. It was the guard who put David's paperwork into the little package to be brought to the authorities in Denmark. The guard also tells David that he was very sorry what happened to Johannes.
Back to the present. David goes into a church, probably attracted by the choir singing beautifully. A policeman comes right up next to him. But this time David doesn't panic. Instead, he says hello to the policeman, who then says hello to David.
After leaving church, David walks by people and studies their faces. There is no one who look like they want to turn David over to the authorities.
David walks over to the bookstore to see Sophie. He sees a book that he has seen before and he tells Sophie about it. She tells David that the book is really very interesting. It was written by a woman who lost her husband and her son in Bulgaria after the war. David looks at the back cover of the book and recognizes the author as his mother. Sophie goes on saying that the husband came from England and the wife came from Denmark. When the husband went to Bulgaria to rouse the people against the communists there, he took his wife and son. They were all arrested. They killed the husband and the boy. But one of the guards had known the woman since they were children together and he was still in love with her. He arranged for forged papers and helped her escape. David asks if the woman is still alive? Yes and she lives in Denmark.
The next scene shows Sophie and David rushing out of the book store. They go to the police with David's identification papers and Sophie tells them about David's story.
Sophie takes David to the airport and puts him on a plane headed for Denmark.
Sitting in the plane headed for home David thinks about Johannes. He lands in Denmark and his mother comes to greet him. He says to her: "I am David." Mom says: "I know, David. I know." They hug each other.
At first as I started watching the film. I was very disappointed with it, saying that it really was not about the gulag system, but the escape journey. An interesting journey but no real exposure of the evils of Stalin's gulag system, But the film had some surprises for me, that I definitely did not anticipate, and made me realize that the movie is a damn good one. I recommend the film. Ben Tibber (as David), Jim Caviezel (as Johannes) and Joan Plowright (Sophie) were all just great.
Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.
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