Over the years the robbing of Charlie Chaplin’s grave has become a pub quiz question, a random WTF fact in a Buzzfeed list. In 1978, three months after the legendary English comedian died, his body was dug up from a cemetery near his home in Switzerland by two mechanics demanding a ransom. French actor-filmmaker Xavier Beauvois (who directed the hauntingly beautiful ‘Of Gods and Men’ about French monks killed in Algeria) doesn't recreate the crime here, but he fictionalises it with big-hearted compassion and humour – much like Chaplin himself might have done. Rather than portraying the grave-robbing pair as lowlife criminal scum, Beauvois casts them as downtrodden poor, immigrants trying to make a life in a new country.
The film opens with Osman (Roschdy Zem), a hardworking Algerian with a sick wife in the hospital and a young daughter to look after, picking up his old buddy Eddy (Benoît Poelvoorde) from prison. It’s Eddy, a loveable rogue, who hits on the harebrained scheme to steal Chaplin’s coffin. ‘All you need is a shovel and a set of balls.’ A plan would help. From the off, the bodysnatching is a botch job. Neither criminal mastermind thinks to take a photo of the coffin before they bury it for safekeeping in a field. So when the pair call the Chaplin home everyone assumes they’re another crank call.
Osman and Eddy are a likeable pair. Eddy, the supposed brains of the operation, is a hopeless negotiator. ‘Stop trying to outsmart me,’ he screams down the phone. Beauvois gives in to some Chaplin-esque flights of fancy – one involving a circus chimp dressed in a pink dress. And there are stretches when the talking stops, the music takes over and we’re watching a silent movie. But Beauvois’s real interest is in human drama – Osman needs to pay his wife’s hospital bills. His daughter is a reminder of the sacrifices immigrants make for their children – a smart intelligent girl, she’ll grow up with all the privileges of being Swiss. It’s comic social realism, and Beauvois only occasionally tiptoes into sentimentality. Now all we need is the Coen brothers to make the black comic slapstick American remake.