Friday, March 23, 2018

A Bag of Marbles: Jo Joffo’s Survivor Story

Joseph Joffo’s childhood holocaust memoir is published by a university press here in America, but in France it is nearly as esteemed as Anne Frank’s diary, albeit with a more upbeat conclusion. Jacques Doillon previously adapted it for the big screen in 1975, but his film never had an American theatrical release. The story of familial love conquering hateful ideology is still compelling, even if many viewers can anticipate the broad strokes of Christian Duguay’s A Bag of Marbles (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

Joseph (Jo) and Maurice Joffo are the youngest sons of Roman and Anna, naturalized Russian Jews who were never particularly religious, but still carry memories of pogroms from the old country. Perhaps because their father is barber, he has wind of an impending round-up, so the couple arranges for their two youngest to head down to the comparative safety of hostile Vichy France. Hopefully, their parents and grown siblings will join them shortly thereafter.

In the months that follow, the Joffo brothers will practically hide in plain sight, enrolling in a Petain-affiliated youth camp. This pattern repeats itself, when the family of a pompous Petainist takes in young Jo, assuming he is a Catholic Algerian war orphan. Maurice will find more palatable company in the home of a resistance activist, but the brothers are never apart for long.

Indeed, that sibling relationship is precisely what distinguishes Bag of Marbles. It is clear during the first act Jo gets a disproportionate share of their parents’ affectionate, while Maurice must make do with the scraps of their attention, but he is never bitter or jealous towards his younger brother. Instead, he is resolutely loyal and protective.

Dorian Le Clech and Batyste Fleurial are both very good as Jo and Maurice. They really act like brothers, convincingly teasing each other one minute, then closing ranks the next. Coline Leclère also has some touching moments as Françoise Mancelier, the daughter of Jo’s collaborator host, who is partly his crush and partly his confidante. However, amongst the large but largely colorless adult ensemble, it is Christian Clavier who really lowers the boom as Dr. Rosen, a Jewish doctor collaborating for more time, who provides some unexpected assistance.

It is hard to believe Duguay is the same director who quarterbacked Scanners II: The New Order and Scanners III: The Takeover, but imdb wouldn’t lie to us. He helms Marble with appropriate sensitivity, but his eye for pastoral setting almost makes the film too pretty. Regardless, it is a well-intentioned, technically polished work, powered by the two intense co-stars. Recommended for admirers of the occasional French film that really examine the nation’s problematic WWII experience (recently including Sarah’s Key, Come What May, and La Rafle), A Bag of Marbles opens today (3/23) in New York, at the 57th Street Landmark.