Antigone (Canada, 2019) – CIFF3

Age old dilemmas

Based on Sophocles’ play, writer-director Sophie Deraspe has made a vital, ambitious film for today:  the issue of protest, which is one of the film’s manifold threads, is especially vital at the moment and long may that continue. Nahéma Ricci, in a stand-out performance, plays the titular character who is a ‘good girl’ immigrant in Quebec whose brother gets into trouble with police because of his gang affiliations. As in the Greek play, Antigone puts herself in a position to sacrifice her future for her brother and, more widely, her family. If occasionally the film over-stretches credulity that matters little when the narrative has such ambition. Some of the subjects it tries to deal with are: social media campaigning; poorly trained youth offender staff; recalcitrant courts; politicians; citizenship rules and so on. Even if Deraspe bites off more than a film can chew readily it is an exhilarating watch.

By ‘good girl’ I mean Antigone is a model student who is determined to do well and she is an academic star. In a scene early in the film she makes a class presentation about how she arrived in Canada. At first the students are disinterested however when they wake up to the fact they are hearing about childhood trauma they, like the audience, are riveted by Antigone’s performance. The scene is typical of a superbly directed film that allows the audience’s understanding to grow as the action progresses and, right at its end, we see the teacher moving forward as she realises the trauma of what Antigone has said.

The film has the trajectory of a ‘youth picture’ except were, usually, the ‘growing up’ is done through sexual awakening, here it is Antigone’s growing realisation of the politics of being an immigrant. She starts as a ‘naive’ youth who believes that truth will lead to justice and learns a tough lesson and leaves us with an ambiguous ending.

On a negative note, the montage sequences illustrating how social media responded to Antigone’s campaign jar slightly with the aesthetics of the film. The habit most people have of using phones in ‘portrait’ position, thus severely restricting what can be seen, allows three phone screens to be shown across the film frame, with a hip hop soundtrack. Whilst this is meant to indicate the impact of her campaign it doesn’t work as it’s only Antigone’s boyfriend who we see involved in getting her message across. It’s a minor criticism for, as I’ve said, you can’t downgrade a film for ambition.

Ricci is superb at conveying the intensity of someone who has not yet been downtrodden by the system, unlike many of her fellow inmates whose rebellion consists of shouting and swearing. Deraspe even gets Tiresias into a particularly chilling scene. The film won best Canadian feature at the Toronto film festival and was Canada’s foreign language entry for the Oscars and it’s definitely one to catch at Cheltenham here.

 

Samson and Delilah (Australia, 2009)

Desperate

Warwick Thornton’s second film as director, Sweet Country, blew me away so I had to catch up with this, his debut. In some ways it is less ambitious, which is to be expected in a low-budget, small crew venture but in others, particularly its lack of narrative drive, it is pushing the audience more. Sweet Country had stars; Samson and Delilah has nobodies: I don’t mean that negatively. Rowan McNamara and Marissa Gibson, who play the eponymous roles (Aboriginal youths) who have no future, were unknowns when they made the film. They are both superb as people who are, in effect, ‘nobodies’: they are stuck in a dead-end community, near Alice Springs; he’s addicted to sniffing petroleum and she has to look after her ailing grandma. The latter makes ‘Aboriginal art’ which is sold for $200 and, as Delilah finds later, is priced a hundred times more in a chic shop.

Samson is almost mute, a melodramatic way of dramatising his lack of power in Australian society. Even his brother, who plays guitar in a band on the porch for no audience, refuses to let him join in. The one time Samson gets hold of the instrument he plays a raucous ‘screaming guitar’ and smiles: violence ensues. It’s not so much a dead end as a hell.

Thornton shows us this dispassionately. He doesn’t go out of his way to get the audience to sympathise with the plight of the protagonists. There are a couple of shocking moments which are shown and then the narrative moves on emphasising that terrible things are quotidian for these people and we understand the resilience of the characters. I mention melodrama, and that’s the genre it would fit into most, however it doesn’t do so comfortably as its observational camera ensures understatement. Yet as the narrative focus is on the relationship of the eponymous characters and, to a lesser extent, their families, melodrama is present. As noted above, there are demands on the viewer (not a lot happens quickly) which also places it firmly in arthouse territory.

As in Sweet Country, Thornton is his own cinematographer (he also shot the hit The Sapphires, Australia, 2012), and he captures the stark beauty of the landscape. There is an Otherness (to my western eyes) to the Australian Bush, as there is to how Aborigines are represented; is that because their culture is so ‘alien’ to western ‘rationality’ or is it merely an example of the exotic for jaded palettes? It could be both, the under-representation of Aborigines is, of course, part of the issue but Warwick Thornton is doing his best to change that. He’s currently working on the second season of Mystery Road, a detective thriller set in the Outback; the first season was excellent.