Some tales are truly timeless. Adaptable to all eras, they can teach lessons that have been known to be important but remained unlearned throughout recorded history. Antigone, the Ancient Greek tragedy written by Sophocles, is one such story that, as with many of the Greek classics, to paraphrase Nietzsche, serves to lay out the fundamentals of human complexities and emotions. The story is of a young woman who defies the orders of a king to mourn her brother and secure a burial for him in accordance with divine law and is punished for it by being buried alive. The king later has a change of heart and opens her tomb to find she has killed herself, an action which would cause a string of reactions that ended with the king’s entire family also committing suicide. Though the recent film, Antigone, has no warring legions, kings, or suicides, and certainly no mention that the original character and her siblings were children of Oedipus, and though this one takes place in modern Canada, it maintains the core principles of the story of standing up for something greater than oneself in an act of bravery and the idea that the denial of these greater things will ultimately cause the demise of the existing order.
Sophie Deraspe’s film won the award for Best Canadian Film at the 2019 Toronto Film Festival and would be the Canadian submission to the Academy Awards, though it did not make the shortlist and was not nominated in the International Feature Film category. It certainly deserved more attention than it got. Despite being a loose adaptation of a story that is thousands of years old, Antigone is an urgent film that explores many of the issues at the forefront of today’s discussions such as xenophobia and police brutality. The story has been transposed to contemporary Quebec and involves a family of orphaned immigrants who live what seems a fairly quiet life until an act of police brutality ends with the eldest of four children dead and his brother imprisoned with his legal residency threatened. Antigone decides to take matters into her own hands and break her brother out of prison by impersonating him and taking his place. Through all of this, the film is able to deliver a portrayal of the prejudices immigrants face at the hands of their neighbors and the people meant to protect them, excessive use of unprompted force by police leading to destruction of lives, the rise of movements through social media, problems with the correctional facilities and justice system in Canada, and other problems that dominate modern discourses despite stemming from an ancient story of duty. Its true feat though, is managing to deliver all of that without ever feeling reductive or preachy as so many other films with complex messages tend to do. It’s a film that respects its audience to come to their own conclusions about what they saw and that is quite refreshing. Though, in all honesty, I expect whatever discussion arises to be divisive and fairly one-sided in the Twitter-sphere.
Unfortunately, for all the wonderful impact of the first three quarters of the film, a new plotline introduced at the end causes much of it to fall flat as a drawn out conclusion leads away from everything that had been built up before and opts for an ending that has little impact and relies on a cue from earlier that had little bearing on anything and even less on the ending. Had it ended twenty minutes earlier, it would’ve been among the most engrossing films and potent depictions of its subject that I’ve seen, but instead it ended with a whimper and compromised some of its ideals.