Movie Review #855: ‘Sophie’s Choice’ is a persecution of the human heart.
By Alexander Diminiano
|Rated R (contains mature themes, disturbing content, religious subject matter, violence, strong language, sexual content, suggestive dialogue)|
“Sophie’s Choice” is one of the most shocking, most harrowing, most unflinching period pieces I have ever seen. The Sophie in the title refers to Sophie Zawistowski (Meryl Streep), a survivor of the Holocaust who was sent to the Auschwitz concentration camps for trying to steal a ham. A devout Catholic, Sophie suffered greatly during the genocide, as her husband, son, and daughter were all taken from her one by one.
On top of these petrifying memories, Sophie is also dealing with her mentally unstable lover, who she just can’t seem to break free from. She’s trying to learn English, as a Polish émigré who lives in Brooklyn, who wishes to feel that she belongs in America. Though despite her fluency in Polish, German, French, Russian, and the Slavic languages, English proves to be a burden for her.
It is two years after the end of World War II, and a young writer called Stingo has just relocated to live with Sophie and her lover. He notices her serial number from Auschwitz, and marks on her wrists to remind her of her suicide attempt after liberation from the camp. Sophie tries to explain her past to Stingo, but at the time, she doesn’t know him very well and only feels comfortable lying to him. We realize when she decides to tell Stingo her true story, that while her original fabrications are sad, they are not nearly as devastating as the tragedies she did experience.
“Sophie’s Choice” is an increasingly upsetting tale. The entire second half of the movie operates in flashbacks to the Holocaust. Every story Sophie tells is colder, bleaker, more violent and disturbing than the last. It’s a rare movie that depicts the Holocaust so scrupulously that even the most tolerant viewer will have trouble watching. This isn’t because of graphic violence, but graphic emotion. As the credits rolled, I felt sheer regret for having watched the movie. It’s incredibly depressing, and it hammers brutally on our human emotions.
Meryl Streep commands her performance as Sophie. She takes on a perfect Polish accent and improvises her dialogue, adding elements of confusion with the English language. She establishes the complicated character shatteringly, with candid depiction of PTSD (or what is implied as such) and emotional turmoil. She seems to even direct the bulk of the movie, built up in the film’s costume design and cinematography to establish an even bleaker atmosphere than merely her character could provide. But this isn’t to say that director Alan J. Pakula is lying back the whole time. He’s steadying the drama within the movie’s first two hours, before he decidedly heightens the tension in the last half-hour. He doesn’t gently tug at our heartstrings; he yanks on them, harder and harder each time.