COLCOA Review: ‘A BAG OF MARBLES (UN SAC DE BILLES)’ is important heartfelt, heartbreaking history

 Courtney Howard // Film Critic

A BAG OF MARBLES (UN SAC DE BILLES), 110 min., NR
Directed by: Christian Duguay
Starring: Dorian Le ClechBatyste FleurialPatrick Bruel, Elsa Zylberstein, César Domboy, Emile Berling, Christian Clavier

Marbles are a game that’s filled many a childhood. In A BAG OF MARBLES, these symbolic playthings represent the last pieces of the interrupted childhood of one Jewish boy during a perilous wartime in France. Director Christian Duguay’s remake of the 1975 film, based on Joseph Joffo’s memoir, is infused with LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL-style naiveté and warmth. At the same time, it never shies away from capturing the treacherous intensity of the Nazi occupation. Though not without its small blights, it’s a poignant crowd pleaser with cross-over appeal that challenges your emotions and engages the human spirit.

Ten-year-old Joseph (Dorian Le Clech) and twelve-year-old Maurice Joffo (Batyste Fleurial) are your average kids growing up in Paris. They play with their friends, attend school, and love their close-knit family. But one thing separates them from most – they are Jewish, and during the Nazi stranglehold on Europe, this religious distinction made them targets. Fearing the worst would happen if they stay together, musician Mom and barber Dad (Patrick Bruel and Elsa Zylberstein) devise a plan to send their sons to seek safe passage to Vichy. They first send their older sons Henri (César Domboy) and Albert (Ilian Bergala), then it’s the youngest ones’ turn – and what an absolutely harrowing adventure it turns out to be. They meet all kinds of people – good, like the doctor at the Nazi clinic (played by Christian Clavier) and bad, like the Nazi-sympathizing bookstore owner (Emile Berling).

Dorian Le Clech and Batyste Fleurial in UN SAC DE BILLES. Couresy of Gaumont.

Duguay, along with fellow adapting screenwriter Benoît Guichard (both working from the original screenplay by Jonathan Allouche and Alexandra Geismar, and Joffo’s memoir), plucks those heartstrings almost as constantly as Armand Amar’s sweeping score plucks literal strings. Despite Amar’s score being slightly pushy, it also helps to transcend any language barriers, so I can’t fault it too much.

While the film is beautifully photographed in widescreen by DP Christophe Graillot, Duguay’s tendency to rely on close-ups and medium shots to hammer home the narrative can be a little maddening, given the performers would be better served with the camera placed two steps back. Close-up shots don’t automatically make a film intimate. They can clip the wings of a film when the material and performances want to take flight. We already know Joffo’s story is a very personal one; Duguay’s predilection to utilize close-ups feels like an unnecessary added layer.

On the whole, this movie will make your eyes well up, particularly when it comes to the staggering performances. They are deeply affecting without feeling affected. A heavy load is placed on Le Clech and Fleurial’s shoulders in carrying a film about a weighty historical topic like this – and their work is nothing short of groundbreaking. They shoulder the weight with tremendous poise and emotional accuracy, never showing an inch of cloying precociousness even amidst the copious close-ups. Bruel’s limited scenes with the kids are equally powerful. His restrained, elegant work is most evident in the heartbreaking dinner table scene where he’s forced to teach Maurice and Joseph about survival and evading capture. It’s gut-punching.

Even though a healthy knowledge of world history is a pre-requisite, what matters most is the audience’s capacity for empathy. You can’t help but be moved by this film’s passion. It’s engaging, enthralling and entertaining in all the right ways. It’s an intimate portrait of living history that shouldn’t be forgotten.

Grade: B+

A BAG OF MARBLES (UN SAC DE BILLES) played the ColCoa film festival on April 29. It currently has no US distribution.

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