Runtime: 109 Minutes
Writer and director: Sophie Deraspe
Starring: Nahéma Ricci, Rawad El-Zein, Hakim Brahimi, Rachida Oussaada, Nour Belkhiria, Antoine Desrochers
By Bianca Garner
How does one update a Greek tragedy written in 441BC? This was the task taken on by Canadian director, Sophie Deraspe. Inspired by the 2008 death of Fredy Villanueva in Montreal, Deraspe was awestruck by the character of Antigone. In an interview with Seventh Row, she stated the following: “I was struck by her sense of dignity, her intelligence. She goes against the law, but for something that she really believes is the right thing to do. She stays true to herself. Even if it’s a tragedy, it was, to me, very uplifting.” With Nahéma Ricci’s outstanding performance and Deraspe writing and direction, “Antigone” does indeed have a very uplifting element to it, demonstrating the power of love and duty to one’s own family. Despite being based on the ancient play, it is very much a film that feels very contemporary and completely necessary for the on-going issues of migration, police brutality and racism that plagues our western world.
Antigone is a 17-year-old high schooler who is highly intelligent and determined to make something of her life. As a toddler she fled her war-torn home country along with her siblings Étéocle (Hakim Brahimi), Polynice (Rawad El-Zein), Ismène (Nour Belkhiria) and their elderly grandma Méni (Rachida Oussaada). The children have adapted to their new lives, while their grandmother refuses to learn the language and still dresses in a traditional manner. Antigone is very much the academic one of the bunch, and she scores a $4,000 prize for academic achievement. It isn’t all work and no play as she has also started going out with Haemon (Antoine Desrochers). Antigone’s sister Ismène, has smaller ambitions, and simply wants to have her own hairdressing salon and one day marry.
“Antigone” certainly deserves all the critical praise it has received.
The girls’ brothers have a slightly more complicated life. Étéocle and Polynice have both fallen foul of a street gang and both get involved in a situation which turns tragic. The event sees Polynice being sent to jail, with the threat of deportation looming over him. Antigone is determined to keep her tightly-knit family together fearing that their bond will unravel if they are separated. She conjures up a cunning plan to rescue her brother but things don’t go according to plan and soon Antigone finds herself in major hot water. As a way of offering up an explanation for her actions, she informs those packed into a courtroom that “My heart tells me.” Despite her attempts to avoid the spotlight, she becomes a social media superstar but public opinion is split. However, it’s not the public’s minds that Antigone needs to win over…It’s the legal system.
Ricci is astonishing as Antigone. She has a way of demonstrating so much raw emotion in her gaze and when she looks directly into the camera in one scene, it is almost like she is peering into the soul of the viewer. Through Ricci’s performance we can see the inner turmoil that her character is wrestling with. She won the role after a long casting process, and is still a relatively new actress but her natural talent for the art shines through. Ricci is brilliantly supported by the cast that surrounds her. While Rawad El-Zein delivers a powerful performance as Polynice, special mention must be made to Rachida Oussaada, who stars as the family’s matriarch. The touching scenes between Antigone, her grandmother and Ismène will bring a tear to your eye.
“Ricci is astonishing as Antigone. She has a way of demonstrating so much raw emotion in her gaze and when she looks directly into the camera in one scene, it is almost like she is peering into the soul of the viewer.”
Aside from the film’s strong performances, the direction from Deraspe is also worth mentioning. Not only did she pen the screenplay, she was also the cinematographer and co-edited the film alongside editor Geoffrey Boulangé. Deraspe plays around with different genre tropes at certain points within the film, mixing in the ‘gangster’ genre tropes during montage scenes which show Antigone’s story exploding across social media platforms. Rather than simply fall into the trap of courtroom dramas, Deraspe tries hard to balance three different genres at once: we have the emotional melodrama of a family falling apart, the tough gritty socio-economic political drama that explores youth and crime, and then there’s the courtroom/prison drama that unfolds in the film’s final act. Sometimes it feels like the director has bitten off more than she can chew and it becomes frustrating that certain characters and B-storylines aren’t explored in more depth and one has to wonder whether or not this story could have worked better as a television mini-drama?
Overall, “Antigone” certainly deserves all the critical praise it has received. The film won the Toronto International Film Festival Award for Best Canadian Film, as well as winning five Canadian Screen Awards, including Best Motion Picture, at the 8th Canadian Screen Awards in 2020. It is worth seeking out and will certainly inspire many conversations and debates regarding the topics it brings up. Let’s hope both Deraspe and Ricci are here to stay.
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