In the opening scenes of this magnificently realised animation, the only movement is that of soft snowflakes over the still, bleak backdrops showing three grey bedraggled figures as they make their weary way across the snowy border from Spain to France. This opening style heralds the varied styles of animation that make up the film, as was explained in the introduction by Rafael Cueto from CinemaAttic
It is February 1939 and the men are escapees of the Spanish Civil War where they had fought with the republican supporting International Brigades. One of these men is Catalonian cartoonist and revolutionary Josep Bartolí (voiced by Sergi López) and the film tells of his experience in a French concentration camp. While there, a young gendarme called Serge shows Josep acts of kindness and humanity that were absent from the majority of his cruel and deeply racist colleagues.
The story unfolds in present day, shown through more traditionally depicted moving figures and in brighter colours, when Serge is dying and has a visit from his grandson, Valentin, who like Josep has a talent for drawing.
The film highlights life’s complexities – that nothing is black and white and that survival involves compromise such as is shown in the supressed anger of the colonised Senegalese troops that seeps out through their subdued towering presence over the dominant French authorities. While Serge forged a deep friendship with Josep, visiting him in Mexico and meeting his then lover, Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, he remained at heart a French gendarme. Sílvia Pérez Cruz provides the film’s original music and also voices Bertillia and Frida Kahlo whose famous Blue House in Mexico City is brilliantly realised on screen.
Bartoli’s back and white drawings that bore witness to the grim conditions of the camp have been miraculously morphed in to this incredible film that is beautifully concluded with wild bursts of colour while subtle self-referential connections are made across years and generations. Josepis a pertinent unearthed story that holds viewers’ attention both visually and emotionally from start to finish.
Josep Bartolí was the founder of Union of Cartoonists and this debut animated film, made by Aurélien Froment, who goes under the pen name of Aurel, himself a satirical cartoonist, is in every way a beautifully fitting tribute from one cartoonist to another across the decades.
Josep, that was 10 years in making, is a co-production between France, Belgium and Spain. It was cancelled due to the Covid pandemic, but subsequently premiered at the Annecy International Animation Film Festival in June 2020, and was released in France in September of that year winning several accolades, including the César Award for Best Animated Film and European Film Award for Best Animated Feature Film.