History is never dead in Francois Girard's Hochelaga, Land of Souls, a drama viewing several moments in Canadian history through the finds at a fictional Montreal archaeological dig. Though taking special care to honor the oldest known inhabitants of the area, including the Iroquois people whose long-vanished village gives the film its name, the picture has a broader scope than the conflict between native peoples and European intruders. Appealing more as a meditation for serious history buffs than on the basis of any one of its narratives, it has considerably less commercial potential in the States than north of our border.
Initially seeming to be inspired by the big-picture films of Atom Egoyan, where disparate narratives resonate in unexpected ways, Girard's screenplay has (despite some semi-successful poetic linkages) a more episodic than tapestry-like feel; most of its stories spring from artifacts discovered by a young architect, who digs up McGill University's football field after a sinkhole exposes traces of an ancient settlement.
(That sinkhole opens during a football game, killing one player. The time devoted to his story might feel ill-spent, but its inclusion argues that the present is no less part of history than the past, justifiably included alongside stories of settlers and soldiers.)
The historian (Baptiste Asigny, played by Canadian rapper Samian) is a Mohawk, and his name echoes that of a character in one of the earliest scenes we see here: That Asigny is the sole warrior found alive in the aftermath of a battle in the woods. A shaman assessing the scene (his prayers recur throughout the film) sends Asigny away with sacred stones, carrying memory forth into the future.
In a framing device, the modern-day Asigny addresses a crowd of historians about discoveries that he believes show the McGill campus to be the long-sought site of Hochelaga, a village French explorer Jacques Cartier described in accounts of his first trip to the area. (When Cartier returned six years later, the village was gone; in real life, scholars still seek its exact location.) But before getting to his remnants of Hochelaga, Asigny and the film spend most of their time on "incidental discoveries" — artifacts tied to more recent human inhabitants of this land.
We meet a white trapper who falls in love with a Native woman, only to have their paradise interrupted by a plague called purple fever. We watch as the widow of a wealthy landowner hides fugitive Patriots from the Loyalist army around the time of the American Revolution. Interestingly, the flashback episodes don't move in a straight path from present to distant past, as one might expect in a dig uncovering layer beneath layer of debris. Then, finally, we meet Cartier, newly arrived, as he is brought to meet the Iroquois leader of Hochelaga. Unable to speak to his hosts, the Frenchman gives them gifts, most adorned with Christian images. ("They venerate torture," says one of the recipients, looking at a golden cross.) He is taken to the top of the nearby mountain, and sees no reason he shouldn't give it whatever name he wishes.
That name, Mount Royal, stuck, and became the name of the city to come. Girard makes no explicit criticism of the takeover of this land from its original inhabitants. Instead, a sort of supernatural curtain call at the film's end casts all the region's inhabitants as a single human population, with their spirits living on through the football players clashing atop their graves.
Production company: Max Films
Cast: Samian, Vincent Perez, Raoul Trujillo, Wahiakeron Gilbert, Emmanuel Schwartz, Tanaya Beatty, David La Haye, Karelle Tremblay, Sebastien Ricard, Sian Phillips, Linus Roache, Gilles Renaud, Naiade Aoun, Tony Nardi
Director-screenwriter: Francois Girard
Producer: Roger Frappier
Executive producers: Patrick Roy
Director of photography: Nicolas Bolduc
Production designer: Francois Seguin
Costume designer: Mario Davignon
Editor: Gaetan Huot
Music: Terry Riley, Gavin Riley
Casting: Catherine Didelot, Heidi Levitt
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Gala Presentations)
Sales: Seville International