A quietly magnificent, if classically told, tale of tentative, incremental readjustment by young Jews who survived the horrors of WWII, “La maison de Nina” takes place between Sept. 1944 and Jan. 1946 in an orphanage housed in a chateau outside Paris. Third and final feature by Richard Dembo, whose first film, chess drama “Dangerous Moves,” won the 1984 foreign-language Oscar, strikes a tone perfectly suited to the melancholy yet never depressing material. Perfs are excellent in this well-cast, primarily youthful ensembler. Jewish and kid fests are a given, but food-for-thought pic deserves wider exposure.
Scripter-helmer Dembo died Nov. 11, 2004, while the film was only partially edited, but finished result shows no signs of any postproduction glitches. Pic was finally released Oct. 12, to mild B.O.
Starting in 1944, in the wake of the Liberation, and continuing into the ’60s, “houses of hope” were established to lend a semblance of continuity to the lives of youngsters orphaned by the war. Dembo, born in 1948, went to summer camp in one such establishment, where he observed some of the people who had lived there since the war — and the real-life Nina who inspired his script.
At the pic’s outset, the country residence run by Nina (Agnes Jaoui) has a core population of French Jewish youngsters whose parents are probably dead. Food and supplies are scarce, but Nina cajoles her charges to make do with what they’ve got or what she can cadge from GIs.
German POWs help out on the premises, and news of the concentration camps hasn’t hit yet. But some months later, a contingent of famished youths arrives from the liberated camps.
Conflicts are keenly portrayed between the initial residents (who lean toward secular Jewish pride) versus the boys and young men from points East, including Poland and Romania, who survived the camps. Latter feel obliged to assert the faith of their exterminated fathers and revive their rituals.
The refugees are led by severe Gustav (Tomas Le Marquis, who starred in “Noi Albinoi”), whose harsh persona was forged by his camp duties, including deciding who was sent to the gas chambers. Incidents have an oral-history quality rather than the literary approach more common in stories that invoke the Shoah and its aftermath.
Jean (Alexis Pivot) still plays classical piano but is no longer comforted by the music; Sylvie (Adele Csech) and her little brother, Georges (Jeremy Sitbon), dream of their mother every night; Izik (Gaspard Ulliel) has gone mute; Gabriel (Vincent Rottiers) discovers one of his parents survived the war, yet can’t rejoice; and Leiser (David Mambouch, a standout) needs to re-connect with the teachings of the Torah.
Jaoui is very good as Nina, dedicated to helping her young charges. Singer-thesp Michel Jonaz delivers a fine cameo as the painter Marc Chagall.
Precise dates are superimposed to indicate such momentous events as the fall of Berlin and Hitler’s suicide, the dropping of the A-bomb on Hiroshima and the founding of the United Nations. All are contrasted with the smaller but equally momentous events at the chateau.