There’s scarcely a scene in “A Bag of Marbles” that you haven’t seen already — but those scenes have worked on most of us before, and if you can put up with the Nutella-thick styling of Christian Duguay’s child’s-eye Holocaust drama, they’ll probably do so again. Based on Joseph Joffo’s bestselling 1973 memoir of his childhood flight to the Free Zone in Nazi-occupied France (previously filmed by Jacques Doillon in 1975), Duguay’s diverting new version amps up the smiling-through-the-tears sentimentality to slightly oppressive levels, while keeping a family-friendly lid on the era’s full, frenzied, violent reality. The result, already a French box office success in early 2017, remains affecting in spite of its stickiest impulses, and should continue to please audiences without making any claims for classic status within a heavily populated genre.
A sense of familiarity sets in from the opening shot of the film, as Christophe Graillot’s blue-filtered camera sweeps across the deserted streets of Paris at dawn, cobbles liberally dusted with tricolour confetti from the previous day’s Liberation parades: the triumph and trauma of surviving the Occupation, evoked in picture-postcard terms. In elegiac voiceover, 13-year-old Joseph (Dorian Le Clech) muses on the diminishing effects of the passage of time: “Everything’s the same, but seems smaller.” The period the film covers in flashback from this point is only two years, though it’s understandable that it should feel longer: Much like Judith Kerr’s celebrated (and, strangely, never-filmed) “When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit,” “A Bag of Marbles” assumes an episodic structure that aptly conveys the experience of a child buffeted from one crisis to the next, without a complete understanding of the reasons for his uprooting.
The youngest son of Russian Jewish immigrants Roman (Patrick Bruel) and Anna (an underused Elsa Zylberstein), Joseph has grown up only nominally aware of his religion. Only once a yellow Star of David is forcibly stitched onto his jacket — casually detached and traded for a bag of marbles with a curious Gentile classmate — does the child begin to understand its ramifications. By 1942, it must be kept a secret altogether, as he and his fiercely protective older brother Maurice (Batyste Fleurial Palmieri) are suddenly cast into the world alone — separated from their parents for ease of passage, they must make their way from Paris to Nice before the police round them up.
Duguay portrays their escape with a prickly undertow of horror, while keeping the focus on the benevolent forces enabling the boys’ journey south, from kindly priests to rogueish Resistance guides to the loyal fraternal love between them. Familial devotion, expressed in treacly but tender fashion, is what powers “A Bag of Marbles” through its growingly fraught series of complications, separations and brushes with tragedy. That sentiment rings true, even as much else here is cloyingly artificial, scored in sheer aural honey by Armand Amar. Duguay and co-scribes Benoit Guichard and Laurent Zeitoun have written the kind of war film where characters speak in headlines (“Mussolini’s been arrested, Rome is in chaos!”) and where no emotion is left implicit (“All the children in the world are my children”).
There’s something of a dress-up Frenchness to the enterprise, too, that grates against the otherwise handsome production values, guarding proceedings from any darker sense of grit and decay: Even when the chips are down, every boy’s adorable beret looks box-fresh. It’s the boys themselves, however, who often cut through the Camembert to deliver a shot of honest, imperilled feeling. Le Clech serves as the eyes of the audience throughout, handling a tricky, sometimes clunky voiceover with natural aplomb, and maintaining an ingenuous, believably curious presence without straying into doe-eyed precociousness. As his older, savvier but still achingly naive brother, big-screen newcomer Fleurial Palmieri has the wily, darting charisma of a future star. The pair’s sweet, comfortable onscreen connection renders their adult co-stars a bit colorless by comparison, as it perhaps should be in a story where even the kindliest grown-ups bring prematurely gray reality into their children’s lives.