by William Stupp
Every year, Movies That Matter brings important films from all over the world to The Hague. The festival puts emphasis on screening films which respond to issues of human rights and sustainability. This year, due to ongoing restrictions on public gatherings, the festival is being held online from March 20th till April 19th. The festival includes dozens of films which grapple with a host of important issues. Among them I review four movies. Antigone, No Gold For Kalsaka, Earth, and When Are You Coming Back, Kees? Though the films are differentiated by their subject matter, style and narrative forms, each represents a director’s creative take on an important subject. Each is a movie that matters.
There is a lot going on in Sophie Deraspe’s 2019 feature film Antigone. This new adaptation of the 2500 year old play by Sophocles is a professionally shot, well-paced film full of passionate, tonally astute performances. Just as rewarding to the viewer, it also promotes rigorous contemplation of its themes, composition, and mode of adaptation.
Deraspe has transported the myth of Antigone, daughter of Oedipus, from ancient Thebes to contemporary Quebec. Though many elements critical to Sophocles’ version of the story are lost along the way, the director brings in new themes and narratives which give the film a solid foundation. In this loose adaptation, Antigone is an orphaned teenager who came to Canada as a young refugee with her siblings and grandmother. Though there are thematic parallels with the play, crucial differences alter the context of the central conflict. Rather than dying in a fratricidal conflict, one of her brothers is killed by the police while the other is arrested and threatened with deportation for assaulting an officer. Creon is entirely absent from the story. The teenage romance between Antigone and Haemon remains and is portrayed in a manner much more touching than that laid down by Sophocles.
The fact that her brothers do not kill each other and the absence of a human character to whom Antigone is opposed radically alters the nature of the story’s tragedy. The film retains the theme of conflict between civic duty and familial obligations, but the State takes on a role similar to that which Fate and the gods play in Sophocles’ version. Unlike Creon, the police and judges do not appear as well-intentioned human beings who are doomed to cause disaster because of their intrinsic flaws and the predetermined path of destiny. They are rather a powerful force with an immutable will which, though she can rail against it in impassioned speeches movingly spoken by Nahéma Ricci, Antigone cannot bend. If, following this new parable, the State is indeed the contemporary equivalent of divine power, we should heed the story of Prometheus and defy it at our own peril.
Tempting as it is for the viewer —if they are a fan of Greek tragedy— to go further in analyzing the implications of the film’s parallels with and divergences from the source material, it is best to keep in mind that Antigone is a loose adaptation. But the question that has just been raised —whether the will of the State, like that of the gods, can ever be subverted— is relevant to the movie’s political discourse and seems to have terrible implications. Amidst the drama of an intelligent and strong-willed adolescent laying schemes and making sacrifices to protect her family, the film grapples with such issues as immigration, citizenship and integration. In its approach to these topical themes, the film is less grey in its moral outlook than the play.
This is only natural, considering how tastes and tropes have evolved in the millennia since the Greek tragic tradition arose. But it does make one wonder why the director has chosen the story of Antigone to create a contemporary parable about established refugees. The themes of family vs state and religious vs civic duty are imported easily enough, but, for those sympathetic to the plight of refugees, the moral grayness and fatalism of the Greek tradition present problems for temporal translation.
Nevertheless, Deraspe succeeds magnificently in her effort. Though the subplot of an Antigone-inspired quasi-rebellion among the youth of Quebec falls flat in certain sequences where it might have succeeded had the film made more use of magical realism, the film is daring. In montage sequences, shot on smartphones and made to look as if they were ripped from social media, the director pays homage to the Greek chorus of old. The scenes can be jarring, but are nonetheless a pleasure to watch. The act of adaptation is itself bold, and Deraspe shows her courage both in her homages to the source material (which includes a chilling appearance by Tiresias, the blind prophet, as a psychiatrist) and her diversions from it. Antigone features excellent acting and provokes reflection about an ancient story and contemporary issues. It is not to be missed.