'Antigone' explores personal toll of family duty with modern flourishes

TORONTO — Sophie Deraspe says she did not set out to make a political film by examining the fallout of an immigrant young man facing deportation in Quebec, but the judicial and social commentary in the filmmaker's modern-day adaptation of the Greek tragedy "Antigone" are hard to avoid.

The francophone tale unfolds through the soulful eyes of a teenage refugee named Antigone, a bright student whose life is upended when her older brother is shot by police and another brother is arrested on gang-related drug charges.

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The blow opens raw wounds for Antigone, her sister Ismene, and their bewildered grandmother who are still mourning the murders of Antigone's parents before they fled an unspecified war-torn country to resettle in a low-income Montreal neighbourhood.

Played by newcomer Nahema Ricci, the unwaveringly principled Antigone cycles through despair, rage, anguish and desperation as she tries to hold her family together in the face of a callous and unrelenting judicial system.

Deraspe describes the film, which is Canada's submission in the 2020 Oscar race for best international feature, as "very emotional" and "very human," rather than overtly political.

"I see that (there is a) political reading of it and I think it's a great conversation we can have," Deraspe said in September when the film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival to acclaim.

"It's great if it brings a conversation about that (but also) empathy. Film is one of the best vehicles for empathy and sometimes we see the differences we have with our neighbours like this family ... and we have very superficial judgments but we don't know what people have been through."

Deraspe acknowledges some inspiration from real-life headlines about violent police encounters with racialized youth and headline-grabbing accounts of gang-ridden neighbourhoods, but says any references to current social woes are more related to her attempts to modernize Sophocles' ancient parable.

Then there are the visual tricks Deraspe employs to further root the morality tale in today's world, which include images of news footage, shaky cellphone video and rapid cuts.

This is especially so when bystander video of the brother's brutal police takedown goes viral online and sparks a public outcry.

Ricci's smoldering portrayal of Antigone's raw emotion commands the screen in frequent close-ups, and the teen's face itself becomes a symbol of defiance for those who rush to support the family with posters, graffiti and online activism.

Ricci says she recalls loving the play the moment she first read it at age 14, and then lobbying as a 19-year-old amateur thespian to work on it for her assignment in a classical theatre course.

Two years later, she says she was gratified to be in a festival screening of her big-screen debut and hear audience members sobbing over her emotion-wrought performance, which she admits was a draining experience.

"It was very intense, and it was not only the shooting, it was the weeks before," says Ricci, whose father immigrated to Canada from Tunisia and her mother from France.

"I remember I was having a hard time just hanging out with my friends because I was thinking so much about tragedy all the time. All the time it was very monopolizing but it was an incredibly rich experience because she makes sense out of the tragedy.

"For me, I felt so powerful at that moment in my life because nothing could happen to me because I was so connected to Antigone.... It was a philosophical experience, it was a spiritual experience, it was something huge, very immense."

"Antigone" opens in Toronto and Vancouver on Friday.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 5, 2019.

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