"This is a true story but it is filtered through the imagination of a child who was acutely sensitive to the tragic events around him in German-occupied France."
French filmmaker Claude Berri would achieve international renown with arthouse hits like Jean de Florette and its sequel, Manon of the Spring, but for his 1967 film debut, Berri tapped into his own war-interrupted childhood. The Two of Us tells the heartwarming story of Claude, an 8-year-old Jewish boy who passes some Occupation time at the rural home of an anti-Semitic blowhard, played by the unparalleled Swiss actor Michel Simon.
It's 1943, and Claude (Alain Cohen, plucked from Hebrew school) has been hastily tutored in the Lord's Prayer and shipped to a farm near Grenoble by his Parisian parents out of concern for his safety. His host is Pepe (Simon, with a film career dating back to the '20s), a windy walrus of a man who spoon-feeds his ancient dog and orates his deep-seated prejudices about all non-Catholics. The old man and the boy become fast friends, and Pepe calls upon his new little ally to help keep his rabbits out of the wife's stew pot while Claude ponders Pepe's sweeping pronouncements about Jews (as well as "Negroes, Orientals, and Arabs") and makes googly eyes at a little shiksa milkmaid. Then Claude's folks pick him up. The end.
But what happens when Pepe finds out that Claude is Jewish? Like I'm gonna tell you. And that's not what The Two of Us is about anyway. The charm of the film lies in the way Pepe's bigoted notions are slowly decimated by an 8-year-old. Pepe tries to school Claude in surefire ways to spot a Jew, with their "hooked noses to sniff out money," only to have the boy note the similar dimensions of Pepe's own proboscis. But you chalk up the old man's xenophobia to ignorance rather than malice, and Simon's deceptively bombastic performance and grandpa-like interplay with the little boy is a true delight.
The Two of Us is preceded by Berri's 1962 short Le Poulet, an adorable trifle about a boy who grows attached to the rooster meant for his family's supper table. Le garçon devises a sly way to prolong the life of le poulet, but it's difficult in this day and age to witness the affection between a boy and his bird without fretting about the reportedly looming avian flu pandemic.
Here are three films that you may have missed this year. Netflix 'em.
Cinderella Man: This film flopped because audiences figured they saw it the first time when it was called Rocky. Moviegoers are also probably burnt out on Russell Crowe and Renee Zellwegger (I know I am). But set aside a couple of hours and get caught up in the true story of boxer James J. Braddock, who fell on hard times during the '30s but came back to win the heavyweight championship. Crowe and Paul Giamatti, as trainer Joe Gould, both earned Golden Globe nominations, and director Ron Howard, not usually lauded for his subtlety, allows the inspiring tale to tell itself. And the closing fight scene between Braddock and Craig Bierko's Max Baer is, um, a knockout.
Hustle & Flow: Terrence Howard would probably bristle at the term "overnight success" after a decade of making movies. His roles this year included parts in surprise hit Crash, surprise miss Get Rich or Die Tryin', and his Golden Globe-nominated turn in Hustle & Flow. The premise of Hustle is pretty formulaic --- ambitious underdog takes a stab at the big time --- but the unbelievably magnetic Howard (does he remind anyone else of Benicio del Toro?) avoids the clichés by making his character, a rapping pimp named DJay, alternately unsympathetic and touching.
Millions: If you're hunting for a perfect Christmas movie, look no further. Two kids find a big bag of money, but both have different ideas how to spend it. The older brother covets cell phones and real estate, while the younger brother (the astonishing Alex Etel) thinks it's a gift from above and wants to distribute it like the saints he admires...and frequently talks to. Filmmaker Danny Boyle forgoes the junkies and zombies that brought him fame and makes a movie with more humor and heart than you can possibly imagine.
The Two of Us (NR) and Le Poulet, both directed by Claude Berri, are showing Saturday, December 17, at the George Eastman House's Dryden Theatre, 8 p.m.