Future mime’s battle to thwart the Nazis

Resistance
Jesse Eisenberg as Marcel Marceau in Resistance (Pantaleon Films)

By Richard Ades

There may be no performing artist who’s despised and ridiculed more than the mime. But maybe after seeing Resistance, people will start to give these silent storytellers the benefit of the doubt.

The World War II thriller focuses on that most famous mime of all time, Marcel Marceau, and reveals that he definitely had a story to tell, though he mostly kept to himself. It turns out that back when he was coming of age in occupied France, Marceau joined the Resistance and was instrumental in helping hundreds of Jewish children escape the Holocaust.

It’s a fascinating and unique story, despite the fact that writer/director Jonathan Jacubowicz fails to tell it in a manner that’s fascinating or unique—or even very believable.

True, we’re used to reality-based tales taking liberties with the facts in order to ramp up the drama (the bullet-riddled escape from Iran in Argo comes to mind). But Resistance is filled with so many clichés and cliffhangers that we start to doubt virtually everything we see. Just to take one: Did Marceau’s father, a butcher, really oppose his son’s desire to be an actor, or is that simply Jacubowicz’s attempt to add the kind of parent-child tension that invariably leads to a moving reconciliation?

Further feeding our doubts, the movie casts 36-year-old Jesse Eisenberg as Marceau, even though he was actually a teenager at the time. You may or may not feel Eisenberg is able to shed his usual persona and do a convincing job here (I’m not impressed), but it doesn’t help that the movie depicts Marceau as years older than he really was. You have to wonder what else is made up.

Another weakness: Despite focusing on someone who came to personify mime—a craft that calls on viewers to use their imagination—Resistance seems determined to spoon-feed us information.

Just in case we don’t know what the Holocaust was, the first scene shows a soon-to-be-orphaned Jewish girl (Bella Ramsey) asking her parents, “Why do they hate us?” And just in case we don’t know that the Nazis were evil, the film periodically cuts away from Marceau to show vicious Gestapo agent Klaus Barbie (Matthias Schweighofer) methodically shooting, beating or torturing people. For the record, Barbie was a real-life monster, but Schweighofer’s version comes off as the kind of psychopathic sadist who could just as easily double as the villain in a run-of-the-mill melodrama.

Despite all these problems, the film does succeed on some levels. The cast—including Clemence Poesy as Marceau’s love interest and fellow Resistance fighter, Emma—is good enough to make us care about the people trying to survive and oppose the Nazis’ reign of terror. As a result, viewers who are able to overlook the film’s excesses will watch many scenes in a heightened state of tension.

But the film’s real value lies in its revelation of the heroism displayed by a well-known figure and many others in response to the 20th century’s greatest evil. It provides the kind of inspiration that’s welcome now that we need all the heroes we can find.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

Resistance (rated R for bloodless but troubling violence) opens March 27 at VOD outlets.

 

Quirky tale of a boy and his führer

Jojo Rabbit
Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis, right) shares a run with his friend Adolf (Taika Waititi) in Jojo Rabbit. (20th Century Fox Film Corp.)

By Richard Ades

Those who hate war, prejudice and mass murder rightly view Adolf Hitler as one of history’s foremost villains. So it comes as a shock when a seemingly kind-hearted version of the dictator serves as a German boy’s imaginary friend in Jojo Rabbit.

Set in the chaotic final months of World War II, the dark comedy centers on the struggles of Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis), who lives with his mother (Scarlett Johansson) following the disappearance of his soldier/father under mysterious circumstances.

Jojo is a true believer in the Nazi cause and is looking forward to attending a government-run training camp for youths as the story opens. Once there, however, the 10-year-old balks at a demand that he prove his combat readiness by killing a defenseless rabbit. His refusal turns him into an object of ridicule by the instructors and everyone else.

Everyone that is, except the supportive friend that only he can see. Hitler (Taika Waititi) assures Jojo that he did the right thing and says he will be a better soldier than all the others if he learns to emulate rabbits’ survival instincts. “Be the rabbit,” he counsels the boy.

Directed by Waititi (Thor: Ragnarok), who adapted the story from Christine Leunens’s novel, Jojo Rabbit often functions as a satirical reflection on authoritarianism and prejudice. When the imagined Hitler isn’t soothing Jojo’s spirits, he’s parroting the party line on the supposedly horned and subhuman creatures known as Jews. It’s something Jojo and his real-life friend Yorki (Archie Yates) have long heard and mostly accept, even though it doesn’t always jibe with what they’ve witnessed for themselves.

Then Jojo happens to venture into an upstairs room while his mother is out and is horrified to learn she’s been hiding a Jewish teenager named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie). As a loyal Nazi, he feels obligated to turn her in, but Elsa warns him that doing so will land his mother in trouble with the authorities. Elsa also thwarts his attempt to overpower her by deftly snatching away his party-issued knife. She’s like a “female, Jewish Jesse Owens,” Hitler later comments, sharing the boy’s indecision over how to handle the situation.

The resulting stalemate between Jojo and Elsa gradually becomes the central core of the story, taking it in new and emotionally charged directions thanks to sincere portrayals by actors Davis and McKenzie. Most of the other cast members also give carefully gauged performances, including Sam Rockwell as an eccentric German officer and Rebel Wilson as the gung-ho Fraulein Rahm. The one exception is Johansson, who never quite comes to life as Jojo’s secretive mother.

As for Waititi, he does fine in the on-screen portion of his triple contribution, making the imaginary Hitler humorously boyish without ignoring the danger he represents. As the screenwriter and director, he allows occasional sections of the film to fall flat, but he’s on target more often than not.

Given that its subject is the prime evil of the 20th century, it’s likely that not everyone will be comfortable with this quirky tale. But for those who can get into the spirit, it’s a subversive experience with an unexpectedly effective payoff.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Jojo Rabbit (PG-13) opens Oct. 31 in Columbus at the Drexel Theatre, Gateway Film Center, AMC Lennox Town Center 24 and Crosswoods Cinema.