Movie Review: Resistance (2020)

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Although his grandmother survived the Holocaust and four of his relatives were saved from the Nazis by Oskar Schindler, four hundred members of writer-director Jonathan Jakubowicz's family were killed during the second world war. To Jakubowicz, World War II movies are more than just a genre, they're also incredibly personal.

Repulsed by the rise of antisemitism in Venezuela with the election of Hugo Chavez, Jakubowicz journeyed to the United States in 2006 where he continued his work as a filmmaker. Soon however, he started seeing the same wave of hate — the kind that had always been there just under the surface — begin to make its way around the globe. Citing an increase in hate crimes as well as openly antisemitic speech from political figures whom he described as using Jews like a football, Jakubowicz knew the time was right to document the response to the atrocities of World War II by what would become the French Resistance in order to inspire us all . . . before history repeats itself again.

A handsomely crafted labor of love, Resistance is a World War II movie that chronicles the plight of members of the French Resistance who risked everything to transport hundreds of Jewish children orphaned by the war from Nazi controlled France to neutral Switzerland. The fact that the man at the film's center is none other than the struggling theater performer Marcel Mangel (Jesse Eisenberg) who would go on to become the world's most famous mime (and "master of silence") Marcel Marceau is beside the point.

Remarkably brought to life by Jesse Eisenberg — who, regrettably, is the main reason to watch the otherwise narratively by-the-numbers Resistance — the decision to paint Marcel as an artistically gifted yet everyday Joe both helps and hurts Jakubowicz's film. Based on years of research on the resistance, the Vichy government, France under Nazi control, and Marcel Marceau (all of which sounds far more fascinating than Jakubowicz's script overall) despite his best intentions, Resistance falls prey to the trappings and cliches of war flicks and biopics.

Often salvaged by its superb cast, including the always compelling Clémence Poésy who, much like Eisenberg, who never fails to dazzle, Édgar Ramírez's gentle presence elevates the film's emotional yet prosaic opening sequence where a child asks why the Nazis hate us just minutes before —  as if on cue — they show up at the door. Likewise, it's unnecessarily bookended by a flag-waving speech from General Patton (Ed Harris) at Nuremberg in an overused technique that we've seen in countless biopics over the years, including Walk the Line and Bohemian Rhapsody.

The formulaic film only livens up once Marcel puts his mime skills to use to ease the anxiety of a newly arrived group of war orphans. Like vibrant rays of sunshine peeking through after days of gray skies and rain, when Eisenberg goes into performance mode to the delight of everyone in sight and lets himself be imaginatively blown across the room like candles on a cake, we find ourselves immediately captivated. Sadly, however, the feeling is short-lived. Sharing his tools as an actor with the kids so that they can learn not only how to blend into the scenery and hide but also (more importantly) to survive during wartime, the film should be far more engrossing than it actually is.

Augmented by the score of Jakubowicz's frequent composer Angelo Milli and the crisp cinematography by M.I. Littin-Menz, who also lensed the moving Machuca, the film's rich technical specs keep us invested in the goings-on when the storyline falls flat. Co-edited, produced, as well as written and directed by Jakubowicz, although this is clearly a passion project for the Hands of Stone helmer, Resistance gives us the impression that the filmmaker was either much too close to this project or wore one too many hats on it overall.

Of special interest to film fans and history buffs as it introduces us to the little known backstory of the legendary Marcel Marceau (whose wartime lifesaving accomplishments will always outweigh any cinematic accolades), in the end, it's an average yet still intriguing work on par with a movie made for HBO. And while I can't fully recommend the film — fueled by great ideas and correctly driven by the need to show the world that compassion and love will always trump hate — Jakubowicz's message remains as timely in 2020 as it was in 1938.

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