'Antigone': Film Review

Courtesy of TIFF
A star-making turn elevates this vivid, of-the-moment adaptation.

Winner of best Canadian feature honors at the Toronto International Film Festival, the country's submission for consideration in the international feature film Oscar category reimagines the story of Sophocles' tragic antihero in 21st-century Quebec.

There’s a moment in French-Canadian director Sophie Deraspe's vividly shot Antigone — a contemporary, Montreal-set update of the Greek myth — in which the titular protagonist is forced to have a sit-down with a psychiatrist. The elderly female analyst dons huge black sunglasses even though the conversation takes place indoors. Until she finally takes them off and it becomes clear that she is, in fact, blind. Up until that point, the story, which follows the 17-year-old granddaughter of an immigrant from Kabylia, could have been a fairly realistic drama, except for the weird fact that so many characters have Frenchified versions of Ancient Greek names. But even as the sightless woman conjures images of bards long gone — albeit a contemporary female update of one — and the material is being lifted from reality to a level closer to myth, Deraspe’s command is sufficiently strong to ensure that the spell of its modern-day matter-of-factness is rarely broken. 

Canada’s submission for consideration in the international feature film Oscar category premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in the fall, where it was crowned best Canadian feature. It screened in the national competition of the Festival du Nouveau Cinema in Montreal ahead of its Nov. 8 Quebec release.

The name Antigone can be roughly translated as "worthy of one's forebears," and the idea that your self-worth is inseparable from your family is also at the heart of this update. The closest relatives of dark-haired, porcelain-skinned and fiery-eyed teenager Antigone (21-year-old newcomer and total dynamo Nahema Ricci) are her sister Ismene (Nour Belkhiria) and their brothers, thuggish middle kid Polynice (Rawad El-Zein) and eldest sibling and soccer star Eteocle (Hakim Brahimi). They arrived at Montreal Airport over a decade earlier with their grandma Menecee (Rachida Oussaada) after their parents were killed back home in Algeria — as seen in an (unnecessary) flashback and recounted by Antigone to her classmates in a moving early moment.

As if the brutal deaths of her parents weren't enough to scar her forever, Antigone is suddenly confronted with the death of Eteocle at the hands of Canadian police. To make matters worse, Polynice, who'd already been arrested several times for minor offenses, is then accused of having assaulted an officer, thrown into jail and told he risks being deported.

Instead of going into catatonic shock, the fast-thinking Antigone comes up with an audacious but possibly crazy plan. She decides that she'll replace Polynice in prison during visiting hours, so that thanks to a wig he can walk out of jail and thanks to a hoodie she can walk into his cell. Polynice might not be able to live openly in Canada anymore, but at least he won't be sent back to a country he barely remembers and probably won't even understand. 

Because she's a minor, Antigone assumes there isn't much the authorities can do once they discover the switch. But as is always the case in Greek tragedies, the gods have other plans for those with good intentions. So instead she finds herself a toy of the Canadian legal system, with police quickly informing her that Polynice and even Eteocle worked for a local crime family with an immigrant background.

In perhaps the most moving cri de coeur from the young woman, she yells at a judge that it "is not their crimes I defend but my family," suggesting Canada is coming up short if it applies the letter of the law literally without looking at the wider causes and circumstances. Antigone's defiant stance turns her into a hero for her peers, with her every court appearance boosting her standing as a social-media darling and heroine of those who distrust government treatment of immigrants.

Deraspe follows the classical Antigone story only loosely and her woozy visual style — she served as her own cinematographer — and the film's fast cutting allow for barely any distance, always keeping things in the chaos of the here and now. This means that audiences unfamiliar or with only passing knowledge of Antigone's story might miss any thematic similarities if it hadn't been for the characters' Greek-sounding names. This ensures that the film's thematic concerns have a contemporary urgency that might have been lost in a more literal-minded adaptation; here the specifics of the story feel timely and topical and yet the narrative core remains timeless. 

Not everything fully works. Antigone rather improbably takes a shine to a sensitive kid from her school, Hemon (Nitro's Antoine Desrochers), who's somewhat of a cipher. The long-haired, epicene boy has a father who isn't called Creon or a king but rather a kindly lawyer called Christian (Paul Doucet) — a name so ordinary that it stands out like a sore thumb amidst all the Greek names of yore. The entire triangle between father, son and Antigone is only barely sketched out and what they do and how they react often feels more like a story crutch or a plot convenience rather than something that might grow organically from these characters and their interactions. 

Whatever weaknesses Antigone might have on a script level, however, are fully compensated for by an intense, star-making turn from Montreal-born Ricci, who has Franco-Tunisian roots. As the Canadian legal system comes down hard on Antigone and tries to break her pride and resolve, Ricci has the unenviable task of portraying a teenage girl whose inner fears, worries and doubts keep corroding the armor and aura she has created around herself of undefeatable strength and resilience in the face of oppression. It's a quicksilver, multi-layered performance that nonetheless always exists very much in the moment. It's work on a level of technical complexity that could trip up quite a few more experienced actors and the main reason audiences will stick with her throughout this story's many twists and turns. Deraspe earns kudos for making a 2,500-year-old play feel vital, contemporary and cinematic.

Production company: Corporation ACPAV
Cast: Nahema Ricci, Nour Belkhiria, Rawad El-Zein, Rachida Oussaada, Antoine Desrochers, Paul Doucet, Nathalie Tanous, Hakim Brahimi, Benoit Gouin, Kathleen Fortin
Director: Sophie Deraspe
Producer: Marc Daigle 
Cinematographer: Sophie Deraspe
Production designer: Yola van Leeuwenkamp
Costume designer: Caroline Bodson
Music: Jean Massicotte, Jad Chami
Editors: Geoffrey Boulange, Sophie Deraspe
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Contemporary World Cinema)

Sales: WaZabi Films

In French, Darija
109 minutes