Before he was the famous mime Marcel Marceau (Jesse Eisenberg), he was an aspiring actor working at his father’s butcher shop who joined the French Resistance and saved 10,000 Jewish orphans from the Nazis. Through his skills as an entertainer, he provided solace to the youth as they survived the Holocaust.
Based on a little-known true story, “Resistance” has a gripping tale to tell, but falters in the telling, despite well-meaning performers trying hard to involve us in this personal World War II drama.
Venezuelan writer-director Jonathan Jakubwicz has only one speed and is heavy-handed with the harrowing details. Not that you can ever sugar-coat the atrocities documented in German-occupied Europe at this time, but it’s a hard watch and takes its time to set up. Several scenes of torture, at the hands of Nazi butcher Klaus Barbie (Matthias Schweighofer), are incredibly tough.
That contrasts with the awkward teenager, played by Jesse Eisenberg, 35, trying to help while pursuing his dream. Everyone makes fun of him clowning around, so when he uses those pantomime gifts to soothe frightened children, he stands out for his help.
Marceau would go on to become an international superstar. He died in 2007, but do people remember him? Eisenberg obviously trained to replicate some of the mime’s routines, and he is good at playing the nervous, bumbling, not-quite-together guy – that’s in his wheelhouse. But he does show Marceau’s commitment to the cause, and how the use of humor helped at an unusual time.
The story is mainly set in Strasbourg, France, beginning in 1938. A group of Jewish Boy Scouts have rescued 123 orphaned children from Munich, and Marcel’s brother Alain, an activist, chides his brother for his lack of duty. But Marcel rises to the occasion, and his compassion is brought out when he engages the children with an improvised comedic routine.
He wins over Emma (Clemence Posey), who didn’t think much of him before. Posey does fine work here, especially when interrogated by Gestapo chief Barbie in a very cruel encounter.
The cast features Ed Harris in not much more than a cameo as General George S. Patton, who gives Marcel the stage for the first time in 1945 after liberating France. Venezuelan actor Edgar Ramirez is also shown briefly.
Eisenberg carries the film, with fine ensemble work, and you feel the passion of the unsung heroes who risked it all to help these kids. Yet, it just doesn’t come together like it should, given the material.
Nevertheless, it has a solid you-are-there production look, and was filmed handsomely in the Czech Republic
An ordinary human’s heroics at a time when needed is certainly worth the investment. I just wanted the two-hour film to be as strong as the real people involved.
Note: “Resistance” is available on Video on Demand and on streaming platforms beginning March 27.