'Corbo': Toronto Review

Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
An airless biopic

French-Canadian filmmaker Mathieu Denis dramatizes the life of 16-year-old Jean Corbo, who died in a 1966 Quebec Liberation Front bombing of his own making

A rudderless teenager in 1960s Montreal is drawn to the extremism of the Quebec Liberation Front in Corbo, a biopic about Jean Corbo, a young and militant FLQ member who died when placing a bomb at a factory when he was only 16. This drama by writer-director Mathieu Denis has all the prerequisite trappings of a terrorist-themed period piece but its acting and mise-en-scene have a slightly airless quality, despite the fact it is a story about a literally explosive and still very touchy subject: that of a potentially independent Quebec. Beyond the belle province and a smattering of festival dates, this has little hope of fanning the flames of distribution.

Jean or Giovanni Corbo (Anthony Therrien) is the son of an Italian immigrant father, Nicola (Tony Nardi), and a French-Canadian mother (Marie Brassard). He seems to be a teenager like many others, except for the fact he’s attending a chic private school on the insistence of his parents. A chance encounter with two youngsters on the run, Julie (Karelle Tremblay) and Francois (Antoine L’Ecuyer), acquaints him with the Marxist-Leninist ideals of the Quebec Liberation Front (or FLQ, as the French acronym runs) and their struggle for workers’ rights and more generally the recognition of French-speakers in Quebec (most of the economy was in the hands of an Anglophone and anti-Francophone elite, as a note at the start of the film explains).

Initially, Jean just helps out by secretly distributing the paper of the FLQ, La Cognee ("The Ax"). But his presence at FLQ meetings soon increases -- the fact Julie’s a cutie seems to help -- and soon he’s doing what all future revolutionaries from the late 1960s do in movies: watching 1966’s The Battle of Algiers at a local cinema and reading up on radical philosopher Frantz Fanon’s influential 1962 tome The Wretched of the Earth, which suggests that oppressed or colonized peoples can only be liberated by committing greater acts of violence than their suppressors.

Denis, who also wrote the screenplay, suggests the barest of outlines of what must have been a very complex father-son rapport, as the fact Jean’s Italian dad and grandfather (Dino Tavarone) were both interred during WWII by the (English-language) Canadian authorities because Italy was an Axis power, which feeds directly into Jean’s desire for an independent Quebec state. Indeed, if this fictionalization is to be believed, Jean’s mother, who’s actually from Quebec, played absolutely no role in this young man’s increasingly extreme ideals of separatism and nationalism, while Jean’s older and more moderate if also politically active brother, Claude (Jean-Francois Pronovost), was also of next to no influence, which seems odd (he would later become a noted political scientist).

The events in 1960s Quebec would later be called the "Quiet Revolution," which preceded the October crisis of 1970, when two government officials would be kidnapped and one of them murdered. This may be behind Denis’s decision to keep everything small and quiet for almost the entire film, though this hushed quality does the material a disservice, as the fervor that Jean would have needed to abandon being the FLQ paper boy in favor of his direct involvement with the organization’s violent and dangerous actions remains largely undetectable.

There’s a telling moment when Nicola and his son meet in the kitchen and Jean’s father wonders what he did wrong since he gave his son everything he needed to succeed just like his father, to which his son replies that maybe he doesn’t want his father’s life to begin with. What should be a devastating answer is delivered almost sotto voce, to the point that it feels like he might be saying “no, thanks” to the suggestion he take another cookie rather than the fact that he’s articulating a desire to emancipate himself and literally take his life into his own hands. Crucially, there's little sense how Giovanni feels about his own transformation into a teenage terrorist or why he finally decides to volunteer for the second bombing when the first went horribly wrong and his peers around him pull out.

As the underwritten title character, Therrien and his bee-stung lips give good pout but the young actor struggles to suggest his character’s intellectual or emotional curiosity or the strength of his convictions, with only Corbo’s finally fatal naivete coming through loud and clear. His good looks are almost disturbing, as Therrien, in his 1960s getups, often looks like he just wandered in from a vintage-themed Uomo Vogue photo shoot. Veteran actor Nardi fares much better as the father, while Tavarone, as the grandfather, gets only one scene in which to shine, though unfortunately it’s a clunkily written speech of the you-have-to-stand-up-for-what-you-believe-in variety. All others are bit players and generally, there’s a sense that the exact raison d’etre and modus operandi of the FLQ remain somewhat vague for the uninitiated.

On the technical side, Steve Asselin’s crystalline cinematography represents a standout, while Olivier Alary’s music thankfully plays to the scenes’ moods rather than highlighting what little action there is.

Production companies: Max Films Media

Cast: Anthony Therrien, Antoine L’Ecuyer, Karelle Tremblay, Tony Nardi, Jean-Francois Pronovost, Dino Tavarone, Marie Brassard, Francis Ducharme, Simon Pigeon, Simon Lavoie, Laurent-Christophe de Ruelle

WriterDirector: Mathieu Denis

Producer: Felize Frappier

Executive producer: Roger Frappier

Director of photography: Steve Asselin

Production designer: Eric Barbeau

Costume designer: Judy Jonker

Editor: Nicolas Troy

Music: Olivier Alary

Sales: Be For Films


No rating, 118 minutes

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