DVD Picks & Passes 03.29.09

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2008) -Pick

The Robe (1953) -Pick

This week’s DVD picks are both well-intentioned adaptations of best-selling novels about major turning points in world history — the Crucifixion and the Holocaust — seen through the eyes of an outside observer. I’m calling them “Picks,” though both have flaws and don’t entirely work for me; your mileage may vary.

Last year’s The Boy in the Striped Pajamas approaches the subject of the Holocaust from the point of view of a young German boy who knows his father is a soldier, but doesn’t understand what he does at the strange establishment in the distance where all the residents wear “pajamas.”

Eventually, Bruno makes his way to the camp, where he meets a young boy named Smuel on the other side of the barbed wire.

Despite lapses in credibility — Could two boys really meet regularly at the camp perimeter and never be spotted by guards? — the story works fitfully, such as an effective scene in which Bruno skins his knee and is tended to by an elderly camp worker.

The film’s best asset is Bruno’s older sister Gretel, the one complex character and the only character tainted by Nazi ideology who remains sympathetically human. Other characters are pretty black and white, Nazi/complicit or innocent and untouched by anti-Semitism.

The subject matter would have worked better with a more nuanced approach.

Now available in a new DVD edition, The Robe is the first film released in CinemaScope widescreen, a Hollywood gambit intended to help combat the competition from television. The biblical epic tells the story of the other Roman centurion at the foot of the cross — not Longinus, but the one who wins the robe of Christ in a toss of dice.

An effective prologue establishes Rome at the center of the known world, belatedly introducing Palestine as an obscure backwater to which centurion Marcellus Gallio (Richard Burton) is briefly exiled.

The story turns melodramatic as Marcellus’ slave Demetrius (Victor Mature) is overwhelmed by a glance from Christ on Palm Sunday and spends Holy Thursday evening running desperately through the darkened streets seeking to warn Jesus of his peril.

The scene in which Demetrius finally learns of Jesus’ fate from a surprising source is one of the film’s best conceits, despite a cheesy on-cue lightning flash.

Then comes an intriguingly sacramental effect: Like Gollum screaming at the touch of Elf-rope, Marcellus finds he can’t wear the robe of Christ — and later comes to believe that it has bewitched him.

Depictions of the early Christian movement include a throng of believers listening as a woman sings a recitation of the Passion and Resurrection and a sequence set in the catacombs. Interesting but dated.

CONTENT ADVISORY: The Robe: Mild Passion imagery; veiled innuendo; a swordfight scene. Okay family viewing. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas: “Mature thematic content” relating to the Holocaust, including depictions of a Nazi work camp and a child prisoner, bullying of young and old prisoners, and a mostly offscreen assault on an elderly prisoner; troubled domestic scenes.