A unique collaboration between Dustin Hoffman and Mimi Rogers’ production companies, “The Devil’s Arithmetic” is an absorbing, grim and only slightly earnest Holocoast drama. Touting it as a family film, as Showtime is, may be stretching things — indeed, the film is probably too intense for some of the pre- and early-teen audience at which Jane Yolen’s source novel is aimed. Still, it could be an effective teaching aid for those who, like the film’s protagonist , are disaffected kids who discount the importance of history.
Kirsten Dunst (“Interview With the Vampire,” “Small Soldiers”) stars as Hannah, a rebellious Jewish teen. When first seen, she’s considering getting a tattoo with friends. Only the fact that she’s late for her family’s Passover seder — an event she has little interest in attending — prevents her from joining her pals.
At the Seder, Hannah gets drunk on wine (“I’m being religious,” she explains). When her Aunt Eva (Louise Fletcher) asks her to open the door for the prophet Elijah, she stumbles into a mysterious hall that transports her to Poland circa 1941. Of course, Hannah is about to learn, viscerally and firsthand , why her relatives consider their faith so precious.
This extended, fairly expository opening plays a little shakily. Hannah eyes an Orthodox Jew as if he’s some sort of exotic, when it seems likely she’d have encountered a few in her day. And no one seems to have figured out how Hannah should respond when she finds herself in this most unusual situation, so Dunst’s performance at this point is curiously blank. (Hannah’s willful ignorance of Jewish tradition conveniently allows for elucidation of customs for non-Jewish audiences.)
Nonetheless, once over this hump, director Donna Deitch, whose credits include multiple episodes of “ER,” “NYPD Blue” and “Murder One” and the Oprah Winfrey miniseries “The Women of Brewster Place,” responds with a gritty, powerful depiction of concentration-camp existence. It’s here, most crucially, that the film refuses to condescend to its target audience.
There’s little physical violence onscreen, but plenty of wrenching psychological violence as the Nazis abuse their captives. Most harrowing is a subplot involving a pregnant woman who attempts to hide her condition from the Nazis.
Dunst, who looks fairly shiksa-like — but that could be the point here — gives an unself-conscious, sensitive performance, and her moments of epiphany are credible. Once her hair is chopped off at the camps, she blends eerily into the crowds. Brittany Murphy, as Rivkah, a young woman who befriends Hannah in Poland, brings an odd but intriguing ethereal quality to her performance.
There’s a fairly predictable plot twist, and the film’s conclusion clumsily melds the grueling reality of the camps with “The Wizard of Oz” — just a couple of examples of the tug of war between this unflinching production and the conventions of children’s literature.
Adults should be prepared to discuss the film, frankly and sensitively, with children. Younger fans of the book could be traumatized by such a potent visual realization of the story. At January’s TV press tour, Hoffman considered the prospect of his 11-year-old daughter seeing this film: “I suspect this will hurt her, but I suspect that it’s an important hurt.”
Outside of some stagy sequences involving scores of extras, tech credits are excellent, from the near-monochromatic tones of Greg Melton’s production design and Jacek Laskus’ lensing to Frederic Talgorn’s elegiac score.