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You may have noticed that after 200+ reviews, I tend to like looking at films from overseas. I enjoy the foreign side of animation, because unlike the slowly changing, but narrow-minded way the US looks at animation, the other countries tend to respect the medium as a way to tell a multitude of stories. Sure, the US scene is starting to slowly go into more varied stories and characters, but the fact of the matter is that the foreign scene has been doing it much longer and it has no signs of slowing down. For example, while we may have had a slightly more mature family film with the previously reviewed Calamity, this time, we go into a more adult category with Josep.
Directed by Aurel, Josep is a war-time drama that has been making waves in the award scene by winning five awards including Best Director, Best Animated Feature, Best Screenplay, the Audience Award at Athens International Film Festival, and nominated for Best Fiction and others. I was fortunate to be able to catch this film at the Animation First Festival, the same festival that I saw Calamity. Let’s dive right in!
The story takes place as a young boy named Valentin is with his mother and father to go see his grandfather Serge. While in the apartment with Serge sleeping on a medical bed, Valentin sees a framed drawing of someone. Serge wakes up and retells the story of where that picture came from. Back during the time a bit before France went into World War II, but after the Spanish Civil War, Serge was a guard at a concentration camp that held refugees from Spain. He is, of course, a guard that sees the refugees as human beings, unlike the other guards that are constantly vile racists and rapists. One day, Serge meets a man named Josep Bartoli, a real-life artist, after seeing some of his drawings and art. They form a bond as the days and years go by, as the war comes full circle and the lines become blurred on who are monsters and who is human.
The true emotional core of this experience is the bond between Serge and Josep. War is, to put it lightly, awful. I’m sure anyone with a heart doesn’t come out of this kind of experience without some baggage attached to them for the rest of their lives. It’s a film that captures more of a mood and a period than worrying about a cohesive three-act structure. It does have moments where the more trippy elements bleed into the more “realistic” elements, but just like Josep says in the film, “that is what it was like”. It reminds me a lot of that indie comic Maus. It can be a real downer of a film, and it doesn’t hold back the horrors those refugees went through and the racist standoffs between French guards, African guards, and the refugees. However, it does balance it out with very human and soulful moments of these people finding happiness and what little joy they can. Serge and Josep have a friendship and chemistry that feels extremely intimate and human. Even after the war is over, and they find each other in Mexico, it feels like they never skipped a beat between them.
While Josep may use a somewhat limited style of animation for its visual look, it shows how smart posing and what movements you can make, should be important. This might be an overused word to describe the visual style of this film, but the entire film has a unique look to it with its thin lines, rough sketches, chicken-scratch-like designs, and drops of surreal designs and moments implemented throughout the story. Luckily, it all flows well and is cohesive. It never feels distracting when the trippier or more dream-like moments hit, and it has more emotion put into it than most live-action films. The voice casting is quite grounded, and the performances between Sergi Lopez and Bruno Solo are fantastic. Everyone is quite good, but since the film is basically about them, they carry the performances in the story. The music is sparse but effective as you hear the joy and passion through the small moments of happiness, and the more somber moments are understandably dreadful.
While the limited animation that dips into fancy storyboarding animatics might turn off some people, I think you shouldn’t let that get in the way of a very powerful, haunting, but human film. It’s easily one of the early contenders for one of the best animated films of 2021. I hope a company like GKIDS or Shout! Factory or maybe even Neon will pick it up. It’s another example of a country and a team that knows you can go in every single direction with animation, and I hope the US starts to pick up on that more consistently in the future. Now then, I have a few screeners to go through, so forgive me if I don’t properly tease what I’ll be covering next. You will just have to wait and see.
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