A bag of marbles

A BAG OF MARBLES/ UN SAC DE BILLES, France, 2017.  Dorian Le Clech, Batyste Fleurial, Patrick Bruel, Elsa Zylberstein, Bernard Campan, Kevin Adams, Christian Clavier. Directed by Christian Duguay.  110 minutes.  Rated M (Mature themes and violence).

This is a very moving film and can be recommended, not for light entertainment but, rather, for entering into a sad and dangerous period in French history, of being immersed in German-occupied France, of the strains on family and, especially, two young boys who have to make their way from Paris to the Free Zone, to the Mediterranean and Nice, who have to flee Nice and take refuge in a high alpine town until the liberation of France.

The film is based on a true story, on a book written by the younger of the two boys who experience this physical and emotional journey, JoJo, Joseph Joffo. It was published in the mid 1970s and now, 40 years later, there is this moving film version. It has been directed by Christian Duguay, his earlier career was marked by quite a number of action films in France and in the United States but who, more recently, has moved to telling stories about children, Belle and Sebastien, the Journey Continues (also with a World War II setting).

The title is intriguing. As the film opens, the Germans have occupied Paris, 1942, Roman Joffo, the father, manages a barbershop (and some German soldiers are tricked into coming for bairfuts). There are two older brothers who work in the shop. The film opens with the young boys playing marbles in the street and, soon after, when all Jews have to put the yellow star on their clothes with the word Juif, a little boy approaches JoJo, liking the star and its colour and offering to exchange his bag of marbles for the star. Sadly, the bag of marbles is left behind, JoJo clutching one blue marble right throughout the film.

When the older boys go to the Free Zone in Nice, with their parents to follow, the two little boys are sent on alone, Maurice and JoJo, riding by train, almost discovered by the German soldiers when a kindly priest indicates that they are with him, gets them to eat apples to make this seem more real, and assures them that he didn’t lie to the soldiers and that all children were with him. (Incidentally, priests are presented very sympathetically in this film, another in Nice showing them the way and, when the Gestapo tell Maurice that he has 48 hours to provide baptismal certificates because they are claiming to be Catholics, the parish priest authenticates the documents to the Nazi who does not believe him, even threatening to report him to the Archbishop and then to Rome).

They are resourceful boys, trudging their way through the mountains, getting lifts from sympathetic truck drivers, finally reunited with the family in Nice. But, the Germans are in this Free Zone and the family is once again threatened. Interestingly, the boys find themselves placed in a Catholic institution, a cover for many Jewish children, a bit like a military camp. But, they are caught and, as indicated earlier, interrogated by the Gestapo.

In the later years of the war, they have trekked through the mountains and come to an Alpine town in Haute Savoie where they have local jobs, delivering newspapers, working in a restaurant kitchen, aware of the Resistance, witnessing executions, listening to the anti-Semitic ravings of the book shop owner and his brutal military son.

By this stage of the film, the audience can share the joy and the dancing in the streets with the news of the liberation of Parma Paris and the taking down of the Nazi flag from the local castle.

The two boys portraying Maurice and JoJo are completely convincing. While the story is familiar, this kind of story needs to be told and retold – and, challenging a 21st-century audience to contemplate and ask who are the refugees in the contemporary world and how they can survive.

Umbrella Films                                  Released May 11th.

Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.

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