An event as oft-dramatized as the Holocaust becomes difficult to portray anew, a circumstance that blunts the impact of Triumph of the Spirit. Film’s raison d’etre – its true story of a Greek boxing champ who survived life-or-death bouts in the ring at Auschwitz – is murkily underplayed within the harrowing chronicle of death-camp suffering.
Producer Arnold Kopelson (Platoon), bucking indifference from the studios, spent seven years bringing the story [by Shimon Arama and Zion Haen] to the screen.
In conveying the experience of the Greek middleweight boxer Salamo Arouch (Willem Dafoe), writers were hamstrung by history, as Arouch did not take part in the film’s climactic event – an uprising that leads to the blowing up of the crematorium (and the death of most of the conspirators). Focus is therefore spread among Arouch’s family and friends, including his love interest, Allegra (Wendy Gazelle).
Arouch’s fights don’t commence until 45 minutes into a very slow film. For the most part, screen time is devoted to retelling the Holocaust story in a version that, lacking distinctive characters, relies heavily on images chosen by director Robert M. Young. Film is notably short on dialog. Dafoe finds little to do; like the others he just tries to exude sorrowful stamina.