“A Bag of Marbles,” a favorite on the Jewish film festival circuit and winner of the prestigious Audience Award at the Boston Jewish Film Festival, follows the wartime exploits of two young Jewish French brothers—Joseph and Maurice Joffo. The film is based on Joseph’s lightly fictionalized novel published in the early ‘70s; it begins as the boys, the youngest of four brothers, make fun of two Nazi soldiers in front of their father Roman’s barbershop. The boys deliberately stand in front of a sign that indicates the shop is a Jewish-owned business so the soldiers will come in for a haircut. Not surprisingly, the Nazis make anti-Semitic small talk as the barbers—two of whom are the older Joffo brothers—ironically shave the Germans with sharp razors. As the Germans are paying, Roman tells them, “Gentlemen, in this salon, there are only Jews.”
The incident sets up Roman as the strong, loving family head who himself was a refugee from Russian pogroms. It is 1942 and Roman perceives the only way to save his family is to escape Nazi-infested Paris in pairs. He gives Maurice and Joseph, affectionately nicknamed “JoJo,” a set of detailed instructions with 20,000 francs that will get them to Nice, which at the time was in the French Free Zone. The goal is to reunite with the rest of the family. As it turns out, it is the first of many perilous journeys the brothers will take together.
Nice turns out to be a temporary respite for the family. It won’t stay idyllic for long as the Italians turn over control of the area to the Germans. JoJo and Maurice go on the run again, this time to a Catholic boys’ camp called New Harvests. With a nudge and wink, the other boys also claim not to be Jews. One of the subtexts that runs through the film is the Joffo boys rehearsing poignant denials of their Jewishness. Roman’s directive to “swear that you’ll never tell anyone you’re Jewish” similarly echoes throughout the film.
The two brothers are restless at New Harvests and hitch a ride into town with the camp’s caretaker to search for their family. Along the way, the caretaker stops at an abandoned farm, and the three of them are immediately taken into Nazi custody. It turns out the caretaker is a Jew who is in the French resistance. Until that incident, “A Bag of Marbles” seemingly emphasized adventure over the horrors of the Holocaust. But the movie’s tone quickly changes as the boys are beaten and must convince the sadistic Nazi officer in charge that they are Catholics.
Throughout the film, it becomes clear that the boys’ journey south and their very survival depend on luck and deep fraternal love. Along the way, brave priests, shady resistance guides and a kind but doomed Jewish doctor help the boys. After their hellish internment in Nazi headquarters in Vichy, France, the brothers flee to a mountain resort town, where JoJo works for a French Nazi collaborator who owns the town bookstore and doesn’t know his newspaper boy is a Jew. Maurice works at a hotel that also doubles as the town’s resistance headquarters. When France is finally liberated, the townspeople turn on the collaborators, which presents JoJo with a moral conundrum—will he protect the French Nazi family that took him in and treated him like a son? The moment is one of the few instances of moral complexity in the film.
On the whole, “A Bag of Marbles” keeps a tight lid on the violence and horror of the era. Much of the Holocaust happens off stage. At times the movie can feel like an adventure film. After all, its title alludes to a child’s game. In an early scene, JoJo trades the yellow Star of David he’s forced to wear for a bag of marbles with a curious non-Jewish classmate. At the moment, neither child realizes the profound ramifications of the star that is sewn onto JoJo’s jacket. The scene is just one example of how the film succeeds in its portrayal of the Holocaust through the eyes of a child, albeit a precocious and lucky child survivor.
“A Bag of Marbles” begins an extended run at the Kendall Square Cinema in Cambridge on April 20. For more information and tickets, click here.