Haley Joel Osment plays Romek, a Jewish boy of 11 in 1939 when the Germans invade Poland at the start of WW II. His parents quickly try to train him in some prayers of the Catholic faith. They have found a peasant Catholic family living in the country who will take him in to save him from the Nazis. His parents were going to try to escape on their own. Romek's new family has two boys. One is about a year older than him – Vladek, played by Richard Banel. The other is younger, about seven – Tolo, played by Liam Hess. Their small hamlet has a priest, played by Willem Dafoe. These are the main characters.
There are other characters of course, and as the story moves along, we see everyone and the various incidents as through the eyes of Romek. And, that is key, because it's a story about a boy who was raised Jewish and in a city now being thrust into and experiencing a very different culture. I don't want to give away the ending, but it's the crux of the film, along with Romek's survival. Romek expresses his thanks for these people who didn't try to make him something he wasn't. Now, that's the story and the message.
This type of thing was repeated many times and in many places in Europe, so that Jewish people could be hidden and spared from the Nazi pogrom. One of the best movies that shows this on a broad scale is "The Assisi Underground." That was a true story, based on a book and produced by the author, a Jewish journalist who arrived at Assisi with the Allies during the war. There are other very good movies like this as well.
On the message level, this film is very good. And, the acting is very good by the entire cast – the Polish extras and bit players included. The problems with the film are mostly with the screenplay, the directing and editing. Some specific strong points are scenes of the boys watching the trains at night that are transporting Jews to death camps. Some of the people escape from the trains, and the Nazis hunt them down. We hear shouts in the distance and gunshots. One of the older boys preys on fleeing people for any valuables or good clothing they may still have. Other scenes add to the main plot. The boys see the priest try to catch pigs in order to save the lives of an elderly farm couple who had been hiding pigs. Of course he can't catch the pigs, and the Nazi officers get a good laugh at his futile attempts and rolling on the ground. They then shoot the woman and then the man in the head. The scenes of the priest instructing the children are part of the main plot, as are those with Romek and the priest as he explains Holy Communion to Romek.
So far, so good. But, then there are several other scenes that are extraneous to the story. These unnecessary sub-plots distract one from the main story. Several of these are about extreme behaviors on the part of the young Tolo, having to do with religion. He wears a cap under which he has made a type of crown of thorns. He asks his brother and Romek to tie him to a tree as if to be crucified. Toward the end, Tolo identifies himself with the Jews on the train. He denies being the brother of Vladek, and the Nazis put him on the death train. What that has to do with the story, I don't know. Was it an effort to mock religion?
The editing of the movie with these and other unrelated scenes woven in is not very fluid. So, the film is hackneyed and confusing. It distracts from the main focus. The playing and pranks of the children go on too long. A drunken neighbor peasant who later kills the father of the boys is a distraction. And, toward the end, we see nothing of reaction by the mother or village over Tolo's leaving on the train.
This film is hardly in the tradition of "Life is Beautiful." It has a good premise – to show that there were good people in Poland, including Catholic clergy, who risked their lives to help save Jews. And, as in this case, without requiring or forcing cultural or religious changes on the Jews. If this movie had stuck to that without the several mini-plots that it veers off into at times, it could have been much better– perhaps even a great film. But, as it is, the diversions, distractions, choppy script, weak direction and poor editing take too much away from the impact this film might otherwise have had.