'A Bag of Marbles' ('Un Sac de Billes'): Film Review

A feel-good tale of Holocaust survival.

Christian Duguay adapts Joseph Joffo's memoir of being a boy in Nazi-Occupied France.

A Holocaust survival story for moviegoers in no mood to confront real despair, Christian Duguay's A Bag of Marbles tells the true story of two brothers' journey through Occupied France, leaving one home after another whenever the Germans approached. Emphasizing a sense of adventure over the horrors of genocide, the picture's tone will rub many viewers the wrong way; others may wonder if their time would be better spent on more present-tense refugee stories. For those ready to view it on its own terms, its gentle focus on family and persistence should go down easy.

Based on a autobiographical novel by Joseph Joffo, the film begins as the pre-teen Joseph (Dorian Le Clech) and older brother Maurice (Batyste Fleurial) have fun with Nazis on the streets of Paris: They're goofing around outside their father Roman's (Patrick Bruel) barber shop when two soldiers approach, and they deliberately hide the shop's "Jewish business" sign so the Nazis will come in for a trim. The soldiers make the expected anti-Semitic small talk while the Jewish barbers hold razors at their necks, and as they are paying, Roman informs them, "Gentlemen, in this salon, there are only Jews."

How accurate that childhood memory of bravery is, who knows, but the boys certainly view Roman as a hero. "You're the best, strongest dad," they beam. But in May of '42, he turns to tough love: He sits the two boys down and tells them how, back when he was a child, his own father sent him away to escape pogroms; tonight, he explains, it is their turn. The brothers are to head by themselves toward Nice, where they'll meet up with older siblings and await their parents. "Swear that you'll never tell anyone you're Jewish," Roman insists, and then, with no warning, he plays the role of a German, slapping JoJo around and trying to trick him into admitting he's a Jew.

Though they confront violence and intimidation from the start of the journey — a Christian priest gives them a needed lesson in surviving encounters with the Army — the movie routinely balances fear with horseplay, and as they settle into hitchhiking, Joseph's voiceover explains that "we ended up forgetting we were fleeing something." Soon, the entire family is reunited on a beach near Nice, looking like a Riviera tourism ad.

This pattern repeats several times, with the pressures on the youngsters increasing a bit each time. They're brought at one point to "New Harvests," a Catholic boys' camp, where other kids knowingly tell them "we're not Jews either." They're caught up in a raid, and must convince a wry Nazi officer they're gentiles; just in time, a doctor vouches for them, providing just enough doubt for them to escape imprisonment.

Eventually, they wind up getting jobs in a mountain resort town, where Maurice inches toward helping Resistance operatives and JoJo works for a Nazi collaborator who doesn't know he's welcoming a Jew into his home. Coming at the end of the war, this episode gives the film a good (if brief) opportunity to explore moral complexity: With villagers suddenly free to attack those who worked with their occupiers, how will Joseph behave toward the hateful family that was kind to him?

In the end, the Joffo family's experience of the war was not without loss. But A Bag of Marbles is hardly dominated by the story's tragedy, preferring to focus on those who lived. As one might suppose of a WWII story named for a playground game, it sees the war more as a series of childhood obstacles than as a horror to define the rest of one's life.

Production companies: Quad Productions, Main Journey
Distributor: Gaumont
Cast: Dorian Le Clech, Batyste Fleurial Palmieri, Patrick Bruel, Elsa Zylberstein, Bernard Campan
Director: Christian Duguay
Screenwriters: Jonathan Allouche, Alexandra Geismar
Producers: Nicolas Duval Adassovsky, Joe Iacono, Laurent Zeitoun, Yann Zenou
Director of photography: Christiophe Graillot
Production designer: Franck Schwarz
Costume designer: Pierre-Jean Larroque
Editor: Olivier Gajan
Composer: Armand Amar
Casting director: Juliette Menager

In French, German, Yiddish, Russian
112 minutes