One of several animated biopics about to segue from the festival circuit to the big screen, “Josep” is a slim but engaging tribute to the legacy of Spanish artist Josep Bartolí (1910-95), a Catalonian republican whose Goya-esque drawings of his time in French concentration camps inspired the film’s Gallic helmer and art director Aurel (birth name Aurélien Froment), himself an acclaimed press illustrator and cartoonist. The film serves as a sharp reminder of the ignominious fate of some of the 500,000 Spanish refugees fleeing Franco’s anti-fascist forces in early 1939, and it also highlights the power of drawing to bear witness.
Like the forthcoming Danish animated documentary “Flee,” “Josep” was a selection of the 2020 Cannes Film Festival forced to cancel because of the coronavirus. It went on to win France’s César for best animated film and the European Film Award for best animated feature, as well as a slew of other festival prizes.
Taking a humanist and, at times, gently humorous approach, screenwriter Jean-Louis Milesi (long-time screenwriter of Robert Guédiguian’s films) tells the story of the courtly and charismatic Josep (voiced by Sergi López) through the prism of his friendship with Serge (Bruno Solo), a fictional French gendarme new to work at the camp and repulsed by the cruelty of his peers. Milesi adds an additional, present-day, layer to the tale by having the aging, ailing Serge (Gérard Hernandez) recount his memories to his wannabe artist grandson Valentin (David Marsais), who unexpectedly finds himself hanging on the older man’s every word while staring at the drawing Josep made of the death throes of his best friend.
One of many anti-Franco fighters who sought refuge in France and found themselves locked behind barbed wire, brutally treated by their guards and left to die of hunger, cold and disease, Josep saves himself from going mad by sketching on whatever surface he can find. The sympathetic Serge notices his talent and smuggles him a pencil. But he cannot save Josep and his compañeros from the worst predations of the inhumane French guards. As in Josep’s drawings, Aurel chillingly depicts the main offender with ugly, porcine features.
Since Josep is constantly sketching, it allows Aurel to bring a montage of Josep’s works to the screen, animating some of them. Josep’s sketches of the naked men forced to bathe in a freezing lake painfully contrast with Aurel’s depiction of the cozy gendarme HQ, where the guards bathe and shave as if in a civilized world. Also horrifying are the scenes of the famished internees making a meal out of whatever animal comes their way.
After Serge slips Josep out of the camp one night so he can search for his missing fiancée, the Spanish artist escapes. As Serge tells it, they reunite in Mexico in 1943 where Josep is having an affair with Frida Kahlo (voiced by Sílvia Pérez Cruz). In a welcome bit of humor, Frida boasts a surprisingly frank and salty tongue. We see the astute observations she makes to Josep about his art come true as in his later life as he moves from black and white line drawings to abstract color paintings.
Shot in CinemaScope using a 2D animation process, the film’s color scheme separates and defines the five distinct eras depicted. The animation, like Josep’s drawings, makes events instantly clear to the viewer. The strong subject matter as well as the eponymous subject’s storied life makes one wish for a longer running time than 72 minutes.