When she was three years old, Antigone’s (Nahéma Ricci) parents were murdered and she and her siblings, along with their grandmother Méni (Rashida Oussaada) fled their home in Kabylia (northern Algeria) to settle in Quebec. They’re a tight family unit who have made themselves a real home in Canada, where Antigone, the youngest, is a top student at her high school and her older sister Ismène (Nour Belkhiria) is a hairdresser who dreams of opening her own shop. Antigone has also caught the eye of a blonde Canadian boy, Haemon (Antoine Desrochers), and the two have begun a sweet, chaste romance.
So far, this sounds like a heartwarming story of immigrants successfully building new lives in their adopted country. Then, very abruptly, it all falls apart. Antigone’s brothers Étéocle (Hamin Brahimi) and Polynice (Rawad El-Zein) are involved with a local gang called the Habibis, and one day, in a skirmish whose origins are not entirely clear, Étéocle is shot and killed by the police. Polynice, coming to his brother’s defense, is arrested for assaulting a police officer, and since he is not a Canadian citizen and is no longer a minor, he is likely to be deported to the same country where his parents were murdered.
Antigone, who values her family above all else, comes up with a way to rescue her remaining brother that could only come from the mind of a determined teenager. She visits Polynice in prison, accompanied by Méni, and swaps places with him. Once he’s safely free, she reveals her identity to the prison guards, secure in the belief that the legal system will treat her, a minor and model citizen, more gently. That the body-swap is carried off without a hitch is a tribute not only to the clever use of props, including a wig and some hockey shoulder pads, but also to her insight that, at least when it comes to dark-skinned people, these guards only see what they expect to see.
Systems of authority don’t like being made to look foolish, and the Canadian justice system uses all the dirty tricks at its disposal to try to get Antigone, now imprisoned in a juvenile justice center, to give up her efforts to save her brother. These include arresting Méni and threatening Antigone with the loss of any opportunity to become a Canadian citizen. Fortunately, she also has defenders, including a court-appointed lawyer, her friend Haemon, and Haemon’s politician father Christian (Paul Doucet). In a demonstration of the power of social media, Antigone becomes first a figure of sometimes prurient interest, then a symbol of resistance against the Canadian justice system.
Director Sophie Deraspe, who also wrote the screenplay and shot the film, draws on the familiar story of Sophocles’ play Antigone to enrich her story without making viewers think they need to return to English class to understand what is happening. The key action of Sophocles’ play—a woman who defies so-called legitimate male authority to do the right thing by her family—is also they key action in Antigone, and there are a few more on-the-nose references as well, including the appearance of Tiresias in the form of a blind psychologist. Above all, the film is carried by Ricci, a magnetic actress appearing in only her second role, who is wholly believable as a teenager whose greatest strengths, including her insistence on absolutes and her tendency to react with her heart rather than her head, are also her greatest weaknesses.
Antigone was the Canadian submission for Best International Feature Film at the 92nd Oscars, and has won numerous awards, including Best Canadian Feature Film at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival and Best Motion Picture, Performance by An Actress in a Leading Role (Ricci), Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role (Nour Belkhiria), Adapted Screenplay (Sophie Deraspe), and Achievement in Editing (Geoffrey Boulangé and Deraspe) at the 2020 Canadian Screen Awards. | Sarah Boslaugh
Antigone will be available on DVD, Blu-ray and SVOD beginning March 9. Further information is available from https://cinemalibrestudio.com/antigone/watch-now.