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We see the five revisit the scenes of their experiences, and they tell their stories, sometimes matter-of-factly, sometimes with intense emotion, but always in great detail, as if the memory were very fresh. Those details are the strategies they used to survive hell on earth: the secreting of a bathing suit under one's clothes as a reminder of happy times; how to hang on to the diamonds your mother has given you by repeatedly swallowing them and then retrieving them from your bowel movements. The Last Days employs no voice-over narration, with the accounts of the five survivors supported by amazing testimony from three American liberators and, unnervingly, from Dr. Hans Munch, one of the Nazi "researchers" at Auschwitz.

That in-the-flesh testimony of survivors won't be available forever is, presumably, another aspect of the film's title's meaning -- every year fewer firsthand accounts of the Holocaust exist. This film was produced, in part, by Steven Spielberg's Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, an organization devoted to stemming this loss to the historical record; Moll worked there for several years, compiling a video archive of interviews with Holocaust survivors from around the world. Although the foundation has produced two TV documentaries and a CD-ROM, The Last Days marks both its and Moll's feature debut.

Somehow such movie-business terminology as "feature debut" rings hollow here, but it probably shouldn't. Moll and cinematographer Harris Done have found potent images, Hans Zimmer's solemn score doesn't commit the grotesque insult -- so common now in TV news -- of pushing emotion on us, and the various stories flow to overwhelming parallel conclusions. If you're thinking about what you're watching, there isn't a minute of The Last Days that doesn't hold you like a vise, a tribute to Moll's nearly invisible technique.

There are always a few critics who express unease when movies such as Schindler's List (1993), among others, dramatize true stories from the Holocaust and use them to generate ordinary dramatic effects like suspense, terror, poignancy and occasionally even comic relief. That unease increases with a work like last year's Life Is Beautiful, which uses the Holocaust as the setting for a fable that defends its title's assertion.

A film like The Last Days has its status as nonfiction to help buffer it from the charge of show-biz frivolity; we aren't haunted by visions of costume assistants sewing on yellow stars or of makeup artists applying emaciated faces and numbered tattoos to extras. But the visions that do haunt us, including many unwatchable ones from the stock footage included in the film, take us out of the realm of aesthetic ethics. The unstaged history in The Last Days makes distaste regarding staged history seem like a meaningless worry.

"A triumph of the human spirit" is the phrase that's often affixed to stories such as the ones told in The Last Days, and although it's apt, it has also become a cliche with overuse. Indeed, many of the adjectives used to describe a meaningful movie experience -- "touching," "gripping," "powerful," "wrenching" -- seem both feeble and irrelevant here. "Necessary" might be the most appropriate word.

Opens March 12 at the Plaza Frontenac.
-- M.V. Moorhead

THE DEEP END OF THE OCEAN
Directed by Ulu Grosbard

The Deep End of the Ocean starts out as a maternal horror movie and ends up as a family-therapy session. Michelle Pfeiffer plays the photographer wife of a restaurateur (Treat Williams) and mother of two sons and an infant daughter. While checking into a jammed hotel for her 15th high-school reunion, she briefly leaves her 3-year-old boy with his 7-year-old brother. That's when the younger child wanders off and vanishes. This hook is a primal fear for parents, and the film gives it a good twist or two. Like Jacquelyn Mitchard in her 447-page novel, the moviemakers are intent on showing what the child's disappearance and his surprise recovery mean to the mother and her household.

Especially when trimmed and organized to fit the confines of a 105-minute movie, the story becomes a dysfunctional-family fable. The cataclysm of the kidnapping and the shock of the boy's return nine years later are emotional flash floods opening psychic sinkholes. Although the movie doesn't go in for quick fixes, it's not particularly revelatory or insightful. It's a textbook paradigm of grief, loss and regrouping laid out in three acts.

Near the climax, the husband, Pat Cappadora (Williams), accuses his wife, Beth, of making a career out of unhappiness. (Beth has already stopped, then restarted her photography.) I hope that doesn't happen to Pfeiffer. She can be a phenomenal actress, but not when she insists on her own seriousness. As Beth, she performs with conviction and acumen, yet there's nothing instinctive or startling about her work here. She sets a clear arc and fills it. Pfeiffer is equally skilled at Beth's complaisance, confusion and panic; at her lobby-filling paroxysm of pain; and at the existential sleepwalk induced by her bereavement. Unfortunately, she doesn't make you know or feel more about Beth than you would from a slick magazine. That's the problem with the movie as a whole. Its actors play definable mental states, not fully fleshed characters. The result is sad in a thin, wan way.

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