Part The Diary of Anne Frank, part The Swiss Family Robinson, and part The Shawshank Redemption, No Place on Earth, about a Ukrainian Jewish family in WWII who hides from the Nazis by living in caves, has all the elements of a great story: an epic quest (survival), formidable obstacles (Nazis discovering each hiding place), and clever solutions to those obstacles (digging new exits, finding new caves). Unfortunately, the telling, by director Janet Tobias, is no match for the story. At the beginning, the film seems to be a documentary about a spelunker, Chris Nicola, who years later discovers the remains of one of the family’s encampments and seeks survivors and relatives with little luck. But our luck is much better; without explanation, the family is suddenly narrating, and in a pastiche of styles. At times, some survivors, now in their dotage, give interviews; at others, Tobias re-enacts scenes, all narrated in voiceover, making it a feat just to tell who’s talking, when, and whether what we’re seeing is straight-up fictional. Those narrators aren’t always the clearest storytellers, either, so viewers must often rely on the re-enactments, but Tobias keeps those shrouded in darkness, making the picture often as murky as the words. The stats relayed at the movie’s end—the women, who unlike the men never left for food or supplies, hold the world record for the longest time spent in a cave—almost have more impact than the narrative.
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