Forbidden Games Reminds Us How Films About Belief Can Soar

The press notes for A.D.: The Bible Continues promise that the TV miniseries (from Survivor creator Mark Burnett) is like House of Cards meets Game of Thrones. It's not: It's actors in robes declaiming a Tea Party gospel in front of shoddy green-screened backgrounds. For a reminder that considerations of faith on film need not be noxious, you can't do better than René Clément's 1952 jewel Forbidden Games, one of the greatest of all movies about loss, war and childhood. It's enjoying a rerelease in restored prints this spring, which makes watching A.D.—or Little Boy, a new, poisonously “faith-based” flick from the same producer—even more of a sin against reason and aesthetics. With so much of the grand history of cinema so readily available, why should any audience settle for ingesting the miseries the Mark Burnetts of the world chuck at them like so much chum?

Don't be put off by its proto-Cinemax title. In the 63 years since winning the Golden Bear at the Venice Film Festival, Forbidden Games has gone from the exemplar of what expressive narrative filmmaking could be to something more elegiac: This is what it now rarely even dares aspire to.

Clément opens with bloodless real-world horror. Refugees in cars and carts mash their way through the French countryside to a stone bridge suggestive of the old ways of life the Nazis were strafing. Planes approach and drop bombs; Clément's extras fling themselves into the weeds. Soon, young Paulette (Brigitte Fossey), a 5-year-old, has seen the death of her mother, her father and her pup—although the latter she lugs along with her, not quite ready to accept its fate.

She's taken in by the family of Michel Dollé (Georges Poujouly), a farm boy a couple of years her senior, and given a bed in their dusty loft. Immediate friends, Paulette and Michel are flint and steel: Struck together, they spark up something new and wild. Rather than mourn her family and his country, working through stages of grief, these two encourage each other into a larcenous—and gently blasphemous—form of play-therapy. They bury her dog in an abandoned mill and steal a crucifix to bless the grave. They take to burying other animals there, too—and raiding the local parish for more holy markers. The film's biggest shock, other than the loss of Paulette's family: Michel cavalierly stubs the life out of a cockroach, which Paulette will not abide. That scene, as with much of the film, is so naturalistic that its technique becomes invisible. Clément seems to be observing behavior rather than staging moments—rarely have child actors been this convincingly childlike.

The church, of course, does not welcome the loss of its tchotchkes, and Clément stages wonderful knockabout comedy as the Dollés and their neighbors accuse one another of desecration. Even after the discovery of what the kids have done, the adults never understand the theft as anything more than mischief—they cannot see that the kids have put the crosses to rich, new, intuitive use, that through these vague and secret rites the children briefly soothed trauma that the rigid faith of the grown-up world could not.

Forbidden Games is a heartbreaker, ending with Paulette uncertain and alone, but it's also seeded with hope: We've seen her like that before, and we've seen her resilience. She and Michel, in the manner of kids everywhere, have improvised their own comforting system of belief, one steeped in the specifics of their parents' doctrine but not exactly heeding them—as the lights come up in the theater, and Paulette faces more years of war, we're the ones who have to find some faith within ourselves. We have to believe she has youth enough in her to keep making up the truths she needs to survive.

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