Josep (Review)

Art can do so much, especially when intersecting with reality. It is so tempting, when presenting reality, to slip into the objective and the strictly realist – thinking it adds reality and truth. Of course, none of us experience the world objectively and art that explores reality is at its best when it takes advantage of the subjective.

This French animation functions as biopic of Josep Bartholdi, a Spanish illustrator who fought against Franco’s fascists, fled to France and was interred in a French concentration camp – from which he would escape (making his way to Mexico, before becoming a contemporary, and friend, of Rothko and Pollock on the New York art scene). He lived an important life, one worthy of reading into further. Thankfully, this film does not try to encapsulate his life, it instead focuses on his time in the concentration camp (and his escape) but uses a fascinating perspective that opens up the film and allows it to be a wider reflection on the nature of art and of morality, as opposed to mere biography.

The story is told second hand, we witness a young man sat with his grandfather as he tells the story of France in 1939. This framing already pushes across ideas of subjectivity in storytelling, and how life is always viewed through certain perspectives. It also allows the film to comment on hidden histories, with the grandchild functioning as an audience surrogate who smartly learns about the topic alongside us (making the exposition feel effortlessly natural). Obviously, France in 1939 has a specific initial connotation, and it is the one the grandchild gives when asked about his knowledge of the time: the start of the Second World War. But this story is not about that, it is about another tragic event. This introduction is a worthy reminder that some tragedies, and crimes, get paved over by history – and of the repressed atrocities that need to be brought to light.

Through this narrative, we get an important exploration of complicity and morality. Again, we are reminded of how easy it is to turn away and ignore the tragedies around us. This film displays how that attitude is a complicity and provides a stern warning about enabling (praising strong and decisive action). The view into this narrative becomes much more interesting when more context is given, and without spoiling a great moment, it allows the film to push the point very strongly that one does not just stand by and let oppression happen – no matter what position you are in. We see how easy it is to enforce, and how even turning a blind eye is not enough.

This is all, evidently, shown through art. This is smart as it is a film about art’s power: building up to a reveal of Josep’s art about this experience We see how he captures the subjective experience, and even hear him talk about how artistic technique can push certain facets further. This is not a passive portrayal of history, it uses its medium to comment and criticise – and to subjectively evoke. The animation is spellbinding throughout, with a fluidity that allows it to evolve mid frame from image to image. There is a lot of smart use of empty space and isolated imagery, that conveys ideas of isolation and oppression. But also surfaces frequently transform and images evolve into others. The variety and ever changing nature of the visuals, and how abstract they are, pushes this emotional truth and the fractured and messy impacts of not only war but memory. This is a snapshot into something that does not claim to be anything but. However, by weaponising artistry to push its themes, it becomes the perfect companion piece to its subject. This does not capture a man’s life but, by design and aesthetic intent, it captures an ethos.

There are small misgivings here. The characterisations are often limited and some of the political aspects diminished – Frida Kahlo is also included and somewhat exoticised and simplified, though not always. Alongside this, though, are beautiful and poignant moments that make up a film that is ultimately very haunting. This tells an important story, and knows it is not often told, and it knows how to tell it. It also knows that the power of a story is in the telling, literalising this process through the narrative framing.

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