In 1943, in the French Alps, the orphan Sébastien lives in a small village with his grandfather César, who is a shepherd, and his aunt Angélina, who is a baker. Sébastien misses his mother and believes she has traveled to America. He expects to get a watch with compass as a gift from her. The local Dr. Guillaume is a member of the Frech resistance that helps Jewish refugees to flee to Switzerland and the German Lieutenant Peter and troop are hunting down the resistance. When sheep are found slaughtered, César and the other residents believe that a stray dog that has been abused by his owner is the responsible and hunt it down. Sébastien finds the dog, gives the name of Belle to her and they become friends. But the animal is considered a beast by the inhabitants. Will Sébastien be capable to save Belle?Written by
Claudio Carvalho, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
The French movie Belle et Sébastien was shown in the U.S. with the title Belle and Sebastian (2013). It was directed by Nicolas Vanier. Félix Bossuet plays Sébastien, a young boy growing up with his grandfather and aunt in the French Alps, just across the border from Switzerland. (Actually, they're not really his grandfather and aunt, but those are the roles they would fill if they were biologically related.
The film takes place during WW II. We learn that the French Resistance in the area arranges the safe passage of Jews across the mountains into Switzerland. Naturally, the job of the occupying German soldiers is to stop this process and capture the Jews, along with the Resistance fighters who are helping them.
Sébastien doesn't go to school, because his grandfather believes that the boy will learn more by living the life of a mountaineer, learning practical information that will be of greater use than a formal education. That leaves Sébastien free to wander over the area. At one point he meets the huge white dog Belle, and they bond.
The local populace--including Sébastien's grandfather--believe that Belle is killing their sheep, and they are trying to find and kill the dog, while Sébastien is trying to protect and save her.
In a way, this film is programmed to capture our hearts. Sébastien is a brave and resourceful boy, Belle is gentle and beautiful, and we have all grown up with a cultural history of crying when a wounded Rin-Tin-Tin or Lassie is crawling under the barbed wire.
Still, the movie avoids most of these clichés, and Félix Bossuet is truly a gifted young actor. (I'll never understand how directors are able to bring forth such superb acting from children, but they do it. Director Vanier certainly manages it in this movie.)
We saw this movie at the Dryden Theatre as part of the wonderful Rochester International Jewish Film Festival. It took real strength on the part of the RIJFF to show this movie. Basically, it isn't about Jews. It's true that the Resistance is helping the Jews, but we only see the Jews as refugees, never as individual characters. The plots are all about Christians. However, that's one of the aspects of the RIJFF that makes it such a great festival--their movies aren't restricted to just a narrow band of "Jewish" films.
Belle et Sébastien will really work better on a large screen, because of the incredible mountain scenery. However, if you can't see it on a large screen, see it on a small screen. It's too good to miss.
Note: As I write this review, the movie has a tepid 6.8 IMDb rating. I'm not sure why--it's much better than that.
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