Teenaged Valentin (voice of David Marsais, "Mandibles") is distracted by his headphones and a search for the TV remote in the apartment where his grandfather Serge (voice of Gérard Hernandez, "Coup de Torchon") lies dying.  His mother (voice of "Aline's" Valérie Lemercier) is distressed by the lack of care given by a hired nurse, but also in a hurry, informing her astonished son he will be left with his grandpa until she returns.  This will turn out to be a profound blessing when Valentine takes an interest in the framed drawing of a dead man his mother had dismissed as ugly, causing his grandfather to reflect on his years as a gendarme and the friendship he made with a Spanish refugee in a concentration camp, “Josep.”

Laura's Review: B+

The artist Josep Bartoli (voice of Sergi López, "With a Friend Like Harry") had an incredible life story, but he, much like the cruelties heaped on Spanish freedom fighters fleeing Franco’s regime by the French, is mostly lost to history.  With a script by Jean-Louis Milesi ("Marius and Jeannette") that focuses on a couple of distinct periods of the artist’s life using the fictional gendarme (voice of Bruno Solo) as an intersection point, cartoonist Aurel directs the film in a number of distinct styles, his own modern, colorful approach used for the storyteller, Bartoli’s own work animated in flashback, moving from the colorless pencil drawings of the concentration camps to his more vibrant work in Mexico with Frida Kahlo (voice of Sílvia Pérez Cruz).

The film begins in a stark world devoid of color, distant still figures ‘moving’ via editing beneath an overlay of gently falling snow.  It is quite a jolt to be brought into a less impressionistic, more vivid world where Valentin’s bedridden grandfather will begin to tell his tale, beginning in February of 1939.  While the old man occasionally gets confused (he needs to be reminded of just who Valentin is more than once), his story is riveting.

While the ugliness of Vichy France is well known, the horrific French treatment of Spanish republicans before the beginning of WWII is not.  Serge, a new recruit, observes the actions of his superior Robert (voice of François Morel) and his goon Léon (voice of Alain Cauchi) with horror, the men urinating on the refugees’ bread.  After observing Josep drawing a portrait in the dirt, Serge secretly slips the man a small notebook and pencil.  Robert is depicted as a pig.  Spanish women will be raped.   When the gendarmes demand the starving refugees’ bread and wine Josep’s friend Helios (voice of Xavier Serrano) rebels, destroying his portion instead.  It is Helios depicted in the ‘ugly’ drawing hanging in Serge’s home. 

As Serge’s secret friendship deepens, he will learn of Josep’s pregnant Maria, searching for the woman himself with one of Bartoli’s drawings.  When he believes he has found her, he will help the man escape.   Milesi does something interesting with his story at this juncture, providing a twist in Valentin’s interpretation of just what his grandfather has been telling him.

Not only are the Spanish treated poorly, but the Africans conscripted to guard the camps alongside the French, the black men contemptuous of their ‘superiors’ and compassionate towards the refugees.  Serge befriends them too and is beaten for his decency.  He will remain in contact with Josep, visiting him in Mexico and present when his book of illustrations of the camp is published.  We’ll hear of the artist’s declining years in New York City, which Valentin, now educated about historical injustices, visits, leaving an artistic impression of his own at an exhibit celebrating Bartoli’s work.

“Josep” can stand alongside the “Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles” as animation illuminating Europe’s downtrodden through the eyes of a Spanish artist.  While both feature fascinating stories, Aurel’s film is the more artistically innovative of the two.

Robin's Review: B+

Icarus Films Home Video releases Distrib Films' "Josep" on DVD on 3/15/22.  The film is also streaming on Ovid.TV.