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The unknown story of a brilliant illustrator who survived the Spanish Civil War only to be interned in a French concentration camp, where he was beaten, tortured and starved to death for several years until he escaped and eventually made it over to Mexico, where he became the lover of Frida Kahlo, after which he moved to New York and frequented painters like Rothko and De Kooning, is definitely one worth telling.
And yet, the animated feature Josep, about the turbulent life of Catalan artist Josep Bartolí, is perhaps more interesting in what it suggests than what it says, creating an impressionistic portrait of the man in same the way Bartolí’s elaborate sketches gave us glimpses into the pain and plight suffered by the Spanish people.
Directed by French cartoonist and comic book artist Aurel, Josep revisits a period in Gallic history that’s rarely been portrayed on screen or recounted in classrooms, which makes it a fascinating learning tool as well. Released on French screens a month before they were closed for a second lockdown period, the film, which received the Cannes 2020 label, scored a decent 170,000 local admissions and should find its way abroad via streaming sites.
Bartolí was born in Barcelona in 1910 and died in Manhattan in 1995, but Josep focuses almost exclusively on the years he spent as an exile in France, where he arrived early in 1939 after escaping his home city when it fell to Franco’s Nationalist forces.
Once over the border, Bartolí and hundreds of thousands of other refugees from Catalonia were packed into prison camps and left to die of disease and starvation, with the French government showing little sympathy for the new arrivals. When France fell to Germany the next year, the Nazi-backed Vichy regime continued to persecute the Spanish. Yet Bartolí somehow managed to flee to Mexico, where he arrived in 1943.
Working with a script by Jean-Louis Milesi (the writer of many films by leftist director Robert Guédiguian), Aurel uses a rather simplistic if efficient framing device to tell Bartolí’s tale, showing how his drawings are discovered years later by a young graffiti artist (David Marsais) at the home of his dying grandfather (Gérard Hernandez), who served as a guard (Bruno Solo) in one of the camps where Josep (Sergí Lopez) was imprisoned.
The relationship between the French gendarme and the Spanish artist forms the crux of the story, although the film is more of a chronicle of privation and suffering than it is a full-fledged drama, with Aurel providing a visual exposé of Bartolí’s long period of captivity.
Many details stand out, such as the harrowing face of one of Josep’s comrades as he dies in a Christ-like position while chained up outdoors, or the little puppy that a bunch of kids in the prison camp wind up turning into a meal, or the go-for-broke laughter of women as they pair off with fellow refugees in a sort of organized open brothel.
These and other moments are captured by Josep, who keeps drawing no matter the hardships he faces, including countless beatings at the hands of a sadistic gendarme (François Morel) who takes excess pleasure in torturing the prisoners. When Josep eventually makes it to Mexico City, where he grows close with Frida Kahlo (Sílvia Pérez Cruz), who paints several portraits of him, he is able to publish a number of his prison camp sketches in the 1944 volume Campos de concentración, 1939-194…
His work perhaps most recalls the intricate, semi-surreal drawings of German artist George Grosz, who, like Bartolí, depicted a society collapsing as Fascism gradually took over — although Grosz left Germany just before Hitler came to power, whereas Bartolí was a direct victim of Franco, whose victory in Spain forced him to flee across the Pyrenees.
Aurel’s artwork is less detailed and more cartoonish than Bartolí’s, but no less evocative, especially in his choice of colors: browns, grays and other dusty tones to portray the fog of war that Josep lives through while exiled in France, and then vibrant blues and reds to depict his happier times in Mexico and the United States, where he continued to draw and paint.
The animation is backed by the voice of Spanish singer Silvia Pérez Cruz, whose traditional canciones evoke a period filled with flashes of joy and much sadness.
Production company: Les Films d’Ici Méditerranée
Venue: Cannes 2020 (Official Selection)
Cast: Sergi López, Bruno Solo, Gérard Hernandez, David Marsais, Valérie Lemercier, François Morel
Screenwriter: Jean-Louis Milesi
Producer: Serge Lalou
Co-producer: Jordi B. Oliva
Executive producer: Catherine Estèves
Editor: Thomas BelairComposer: Silvia Pérez Cruz
Artistic director: Aurel
Technical director: Frédérik Chaillou
Sales: Les Films d’Ici
In French, Catalan, Spanish, English
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