Sheer luck and special skills help a Jewish Slovak adolescent survive the WWII years in Holocaust drama “Broken Promise,” from Czech helmer Jiri Chlumsky. Based on the autobiography of Martin Friedmann-Petrasek, the pic is a mixed bag: Sometimes clunky and cliched, at other times genuinely affecting, it could travel beyond its natural audience of Jewish-interest fests and ancillary if it finds success as Slovakia’s foreign-language film Oscar submission. Pusan-bound pic is seeking a North American distributor after its pact with Picture This Entertainment fell through; deals have already been sealed in territories including Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Japan.

Like Agnieszka Holland’s “Europa Europa” and Lajos Koltai’s “Fateless,” “Broken Promise” traces an Eastern European youth’s painful fight for survival against a backdrop of increasing anti-Semitism, deportations and death camps, but helmer Chlumsky’s melodramatic storytelling seems modeled on a made-for-TV movie. Nevertheless, Friedmann-Petrasek’s personal story remains gripping despite the pic’s problems of pacing and tone.

In 1939, in the Western Slovak village of Banovce nad Bebravou, Martin (Samuel Spisak) is preparing for his bar mitzvah. One of nine children of a poultry merchant, Martin is more concerned with his soccer abilities than with the fact that his newly formed country has become an ally of Hitler’s Germany. However, his father (Ondrej Vetchy) senses the gathering storm, and asks the extended family to swear they will meet every year for Passover.

But as hard times arrive in earnest, it’s not a promise the family members are able to keep. By 1942, local Jewish shops are “Aryanized” and various Friedmann siblings transported to Poland. Against his parents’ wishes, Martin volunteers to go to a labor camp in Sered, where he quickly loses what innocence remains when his possessions are stolen and he learns the true fate of those sent to Poland. But as the star player on the camp soccer team, he earns a few extra rations and is rescued from the transports by a soccer-mad commandant.

After surviving pneumonia and laboring for a period in a monastery, Martin joins a group of Soviet-led partisans in the mountains under the name Martin Petrasek and becomes a favorite of the drunken, chess-playing Russian captain (Roman Luknar) in the overlong final section. The closing moments, however, are the film’s most moving.

Emphasizing the rampant anti-Semitism Martin faces at every turn, the screenplay by Chicago-based Czech scribe Jan Novak crams in a considerable amount of Slovak history, including the fact that Martin used to join Christian friends to ring the bells at the local church administered by Jozef Tiso (soon to become head of the fascist Slovak state). It also weighs down the proceedings with some lugubrious dialogue.

Slovak newcomer Spisak, only 16 at the time of filming and credibly aged with makeup, anchors the pic with a sensitive performance of considerable gravitas. The rest of the thesping varies widely, with most of the supporting players unable to lend depth to their one-dimensional characters; among the few who leave a strong impression is Andrej Mojzis as the monastery’s noble prior. Chlumsky’s unnuanced direction runs into the most trouble in awkwardly staged crowd scenes.

Made on a tight budget, the period production package is thoroughly pro, but looks overlit in the manner of so many telepics. The lush orchestral score hammers home every big emotion.

Broken Promise

Slovakia-Czech Republic-U.S.

  • Production: A Genta Film, Ministry of Culture Slovak Republic, Slovak TV (Slovakia)/Czech TV, SPI Intl. Central Europe (Czech Republic)/Studio 727 (Slovakia)/Jewish Partisan Educational Fund (U.S.) production. (International sales: Film Europe, Prague.) Produced by Iveta Cerna Ivanova. Directed by Jiri Chlumsky. Screenplay, Jan Novak.
  • Crew: Camera (color), Jan Duris; editor, Vasileios Skalenakis; music, Michal Novinski, costume designer, Simona Vachalkova; sound (Dolby Digital). Reviewed on DVD, Chicago, Sept. 30, 2009. (In Karlovy Vary, Pusan film festivals; Berlin Film Festival -- market.) Running time: 129 MIN. (Slovak, Russian dialogue)
  • With: <b>With:</b> Samuel Spisak, Ondrej Vetchy, Andrej Mojzis, Roman Luknar.