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ON FAITH & MEDIA View Comments

The Book Thief

By
Kurt Jensen
Source: Catholic News Service


Ben Schnetzer and Sophie Nelisse star in a scene from the movie "The Book Thief."
"The Book Thief" (Fox), a film about how the power of reading can transcend the vilest bigotry, is so beautifully crafted and performed, it makes you want to embrace and celebrate it.

But the picture comes with a defect that's too significant to be overlooked.

Director Brian Percival and screenwriter Michael Petroni have squeezed all the nuance and moral ambiguity out of their adaptation of Markus Zusak's much-lauded young-adult novel of 2005. What's left is a well-intentioned, awkwardly sentimental Holocaust story filled with "righteous Gentiles" and sanitized of historical context.

It's still a movie worth seeing, and mature adolescents won't have difficulty with it. In fact, "The Book Thief" could provide the opportunity for worthwhile group discussions, perhaps focusing on key elements missing from the source novel. Just don't take what you're seeing as history.

Sophie Nelisse plays Liesel, adopted by Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson) Huberman because her communist mother is on the run. Her younger brother has died en route, leaving her a solitary orphan who, at around age 10, cannot read or write.

She somehow understands that books hold power, beginning with the one she pilfers from one of the men who dug her brother's grave. Hans spurs her hunger for reading by constructing a dictionary on a basement wall, and she finds a stalwart friend in classmate Rudy (Nico Liersch).

Because she's such an avid reader, she even grabs a smoldering book when a pile of them are burned in the town square by the bergmeister, Hermann (Rainer Bock). He hopes to placate the Nazi authorities by this show of cultural "purification." But it turns out he has a substantial library of his own, and his wife, Ilsa (Barbara Auer), happily introduces Liesel to this treasury of knowledge.

Liesel's love of literature combined with the compassion of her adoptive parents, who hide their Jewish family friend, Max (Ben Schnetzer), in their basement, somehow combine to make her immune from the corrupting influence of the Hitler Youth. Rudy is such a good kid that he happily darkens himself with dirt to imitate his favorite track star, Jesse Owens.

That's the uplift. Now for the problem.

First, the film is narrated by Death (voice of Roger Allam), who occasionally comments on the purity of someone's soul. Fine, as far as that goes. But in the scene in which Jews are shown being led at gunpoint to a concentration camp, Death, who's been quite chatty up until then, is oddly silent.

Second, the screenplay omits the pro-Nazi grown son of the Hubermans, who could have created some balance to the Disneyfied goings-on. His character shows that hatred and bigotry are always among us, inside our walls—not merely outside.

A spoonful of sugar can't help the Holocaust go down. It's a big flaw in what otherwise should be a quite inspirational movie.

The film contains anti-Semitic dialogue and scenes of wartime bombings. The Catholic News Service classification is A-II—adults and adolescents. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13—parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.

*****
Kurt Jensen is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.



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Alphonsus Rodriguez: Tragedy and challenge beset today’s saint early in life, but Alphonsus Rodriguez found happiness and contentment through simple service and prayer. 
<p>Born in Spain in 1533, Alphonsus inherited the family textile business at 23. Within the space of three years, his wife, daughter and mother died; meanwhile, business was poor. Alphonsus stepped back and reassessed his life. He sold the business and, with his young son, moved into his sisters’ home. There he learned the discipline of prayer and meditation. </p><p>Years later, at the death of his son, Alphonsus, almost 40 by then, sought to join the Jesuits. He was not helped by his poor education. He applied twice before being admitted. For 45 years he served as doorkeeper at the Jesuits’ college in Majorca. When not at his post, he was almost always at prayer, though he often encountered difficulties and temptations. </p><p>His holiness and prayerfulness attracted many to him, including St. Peter Claver, then a Jesuit seminarian. Alphonsus’s life as doorkeeper may have been humdrum, but he caught the attention of poet and fellow-Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins, who made him the subject of one of his poems. </p><p>Alphonsus died in 1617. He is the patron saint of Majorca.</p> American Catholic Blog People mess up, and it’s especially hard to watch as our children and other young people go down paths we know are likely to lead to heartbreak. Providing gentle guidance when it’s needed, and love even when that guidance isn’t followed, helps them to start fresh.

 
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