French-Canadian writer-director François Girard’s sixth feature over nearly three decades — during which he’s also worked extensively in other media — “Hochelaga, Land of Souls” proves a worthy return to the strengths and ambitions of “Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould” and “The Red Violin.” Like those two earlier art-house successes, “Hochelaga” is trickily structured and flamboyantly staged almost to a self-conscious fault, but nonetheless likewise rewards with a rich cinematic banquet. In this case the menu sprawls across some eight centuries of Quebec history, tying together present and various pasts through the framing device of a modern-day archaeological dig.
The national specificity of this subject may result in more limited commercial exposure than Girard’s prior successes have enjoyed, but if any movie is going to lure international audiences in for a Canadian history lesson, this is it.
The somewhat overly-showy opening movement involves both the gruesome aftermath of a 13th-century Native Peoples battle, and a college football match in a rain-soaked stadium where erosion opens a sinkhole right in the middle of a play, swallowing up a star quarterback’s life with it. (Girard reprises that dicey correlation between warfare and sportive “combat” in a climactic setpiece.) A leading academic (Gilles Renaud) realizes this tragedy provides opportunity to search a site, long believed key to the city and entire region’s history, that would otherwise be impossible to access. He puts Mohawk-heritage grad student Baptiste (Samian) in charge of the excavation.
The rest of the film is framed by Baptiste’s doctoral thesis presentation several years later. Layer by layer, the dig revealed evidence of Quebec’s entire colonial history and beyond — though of course, he can’t guess at the precise dramas we see depicted in flashback. A piece of 17th-century metalwork is all that survives of a hot romance between an Algonquin maiden (Tanaya Beatty) and a French trapper, one prematurely ended with his death from smallpox in a “New France” mission hospital.
To this point, “Hochelaga” is eye- and ear-filling but a bit overstuffed, with too many slick directorial flourishes and too much sense of modern multicultural PC-dom forced into every narrative context. Girard’s intentions are good, but grandiose; not every moment needs to feel like it’s ramming hyperbolic “All of life in two hours” conceptual and stylistic bravado down our throats. But the later panels here are much more effective, elevating the impact of the whole.
Amid the Lower Canada Rebellion of 1837, two French “Patriots” escape city fighting to the shelter of a sympathetic wealthy matron (Sian Phillips). When an English “Redcoat” Captain (Linus Roache) arrives looking for the fugitives, however, she is unable to protect them, or to save her own covert political activities from exposure. This sequence is the most dynamic, with the runaways’ desperate flight from soldiers across the countryside vividly captured by DP Nicolas Bolduc.
Finally, a crucifix found in the pit provides a clue to the probable first meeting in this spot between native and European people, when an Iroquois Chief Tennawake (Wahiakeron Gilbert) cautiously welcomed a group of exhausted, frightened French explorers led by Jacques Cartier (Vincent Perez). Their exchange in ill-understood words, gestures and gifts is portrayed here as prophetic of all fraught future relations between native peoples and white society.
This historical fantasia is admirably compact, even if the reduction of so many large themes to a motif or fleeting moment inevitably renders some of them rather heavy-handed. Still, the symphonic ambition that can make Girard’s vision occasionally seem affected or simplistic also has a certain undeniable splendor, one amply served by his superb design and tech collaborators. Particularly notable are the subtle yet spectacular CGI effects that bring to life entire vistas (like a huge Iroquois village) that existed before Montreal itself; and a diverse, beautiful score by the great American composer Terry Riley and his son Gyan.