‘La Rafle’ gathers cliches, sentiment
"La Rafle’’ (“The Round-Up’’) is a big, sorrowful, dramatically trite period epic about a bleak chapter in the history of modern France: the 1942 arrest of 13,000 Parisian Jews and their deportation to the death camps in the east. It’s a story that only now is being confronted on film; in fact, it’s the subject of two movies, this one and the upcoming “Sarah’s Key,’’ with Kristin Scott Thomas. Written and directed by Rose Bosch, “La Rafle’’ is sobering and often engrossing, but its reliance on cliches and sentiment make one hope the other film is a lot better.
And there’s the sense that Bosch may have taken on too much in trying to convey the immense scope of this story - the wholesale relocation and murder of an entire urban subculture - while attending to individual dramas. Sequences in which Marshall Pétain (Roland Copé), the doddering head of France’s Vichy government, colludes with his minister Pierre Laval (Jean-Michel Noirey) and the occupying Nazis on how best to solve the country’s “Jewish problem’’ feel like stiff historical reenactments. Scenes of Adolf Hitler (Udo Schenk) frothing through speeches and frolicking in the country with Eva Braun (Franziska Schubert) are worse - they’re kitsch.
Much more convincing are the struggles of various Jewish families and individuals caught up in the horrible events. The central characters in “La Rafle’’ are the Weismanns, a family of five who, as do so many others, can’t imagine things will get worse. Bosch’s script charts every degradation, from the wearing of stars to the banning of Jews from restaurants. Then comes the early morning hours of July 16, 1942, when the French police fanned out under orders from the SS. They were supposed to round up 22,000 Jews, primarily refugees from other countries. They netted “only’’ 13,152; the rest escaped or were hidden by French sympathizers.
The most arresting scenes take place in the indoor bicycle-racing stadium known as the Winter Velodrome, where thousands of the detained were held for five days without food or water. You’re reminded of the New Orleans Astrodome after Hurricane Katrina and then shocked to remember that nature hasn’t done this to these people - other people have. In this pressure cooker, the strengths and weaknesses of individuals surface: the kind helplessness of the Weismann patriarch, Schmuel (Gad Elmaleh), the bravery of his wife, Sura (Raphaëlle Agogué), the impotent anger of their daughter (Rebecca Marder), and the resourcefulness of their young son, Jo (Hugo Leverdez).
The latter becomes the film’s primary witness and increasingly active participant, and it’s through his eyes that we follow the Paris Jews from the “Vel D’Hiv’’ to the internment camp at Beaune-La-Rolande, where further suffering awaits and, ultimately, trains to the east. The film’s producer has said he wanted this film to be France’s answer to “Schindler’s List,’’ which seems fairly perverse since there was no Schindler on hand to save the Paris Jews.
Bosch goes out of her way, though, to paint the French people as both morally culpable and, in certain cases, individually resistant to the inhumanity demanded of them. There are good French and bad French in “La Rafle,’’ but, once again, most of the Jews are portrayed as passive victims. (The ones who aren’t, like a vibrant teenage toughie played by Adèle Exarchopoulos, pass through the film on their way to the Resistance.) “La Rafle’’ really doesn’t need an angelically lisping toddler to represent Innocence - but it has one (played by twin brothers Mathieu and Romain Di Concerto).
Leverdez is appealingly stoic in his role, and Jean Reno strikes exhausted notes of martyrdom as the one doctor allowed to tend to the detainees. For all that, the film’s most dramatically interesting figure is Annette Monod, a Protestant nurse who becomes the film’s desperate voice of conscience. As played by Mélanie Laurent (“Inglourious Basterds,’’ “Beginners’’), Annette’s total identification with the captured Jews - she starves herself rather than eat more than they’re allowed - teeters on the thin line between heroic sacrifice and mania. It’s the only finely drawn character complication in a movie that otherwise paints history with a broad brush.