Film Review: A Bag of Marbles

This well-acted, engaging film about two young French-Jewish brothers fleeing German-occupied France during the Holocaust years regrettably offers no new insights on the well-worn topic.
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Based on Joseph Joffo’s moving 1973 memoir of the same name, A Bag of Marbles tells the familiar story of a Jewish family torn apart during the war years; in this instance, it’s a Parisian family—violinist mom Anna (Elsa Zylberstein); dad Roman, a barber (the always wonderful Patrick Bruel); and their four sons—trying to survive as the German occupation encroaches and anti-Semitism spreads. Jews are forced to wear yellow stars pinned to their clothes and the boys are beaten up at school.

For reasons that are not entirely clear, the parents decide that the younger boys, 12-year-old Joseph (Dorian Le Clech)and 17-year-old Maurice (Batyste Fleurial), should try to escape on their own. Perhaps they feel two youngsters will blend into the crowd and be altogether less noticeable, which seems counterintuitive. Either way, the plan is for the family to meet up later in Nice, a free zone along the Riviera. A narrative based on fact—or more precisely the distorting lens of memory—doesn’t necessarily make it (at least not in Christian Duguay’s retelling of the 1975 film) more credible.

That said, the two boys are terrific actors and the fraternal chemistry between them is palpable as they squabble, play and in the end protect each other. In one of the more moving scenes, Joseph hurts his foot and Maurice carries him on his back as they navigate mountainous terrain. But after a few yards, Maurice can no longer bear the weight and has to put him down. That’s a nice detail that almost comically undercuts the heroic gesture without mitigating Maurice’s impulse to do the right thing.

There are several memorable scenes, most notably the father slapping Joseph across the face repeatedly and with increasing violence as he teaches his sons—using the youngest as the example—to deny his Jewish identity if questioned, no matter how brutally. “Are you Jewish?” Slap. “No.” “Are you Jewish?” Harder slap. “No.” “Are you Jewish?” Harder slap. “No!” he cries out.

The two boys evolve as characters, especially Joseph, who in the end has to decide whether or not to acknowledge his identity and reaches a complex moral decision to save a family of collaborators who unwittingly protected the brothers. He is also in love with the daughter of the family. Despite the ongoing horrors, everyday life goes on and the film captures those quotidian moments effectively.

The film is well paced and tensions mount after the family is reunited in Nice and shortly thereafter the Nazis converge on the scene, shipping the two younger brothers off to a military camp where revealing their identities could mean torture and death. The brutal Nazi officials constantly question them and other suspected Jews. Some escape unscathed; some don’t. Often, it’s just the luck of the draw. That’s subtly handled.

Still, it’s the secondary characters that are by far the most interesting, such as the family of collaborators, a priest on the train who risks his own life to save the boys and, most intriguing, a Jewish doctor who is working for the Nazis and takes a stunningly brave risk.

In the end A Bag of Marbles—referencing a child’s game the boys played before the Nazis surfaced and a none-too-subtle metaphor for innocence—is not all that original, despite its many virtues, including its striking landscapes and evocative cinematography by Christophe Graillot. Au Revoir les Enfants, Life Is Beautiful, The Pianist, Schinder’s List and, most recently, Son of Saul cover similar territory with greater impact and fresh insight.

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