The very idea of a modern reworking of a classical text itself gets a modern reworking in Sophie Deraspe’s supple and impassioned “Antigone,” a contemporary spin on the Greek tragedy that feels refreshingly liberated by the spirit of Sophocles’ original material, rather than slavishly devoted to its letter. Further electrified by a performance of immense self-possession and dignity from revelatory new star Nahéma Ricci, the clever screenplay (the film is also written and crisply shot by Deraspe) injects these ancient archetypes directly into the bloodstream of the modern-day immigration debate. So while the up-to-the-minute Quebecois setting ought to guarantee significant Francophone interest, its selection as Canada’s Oscar entry should by rights ensure it finds an audience in other territories divided by the immigration issue: namely, almost every developed nation on the planet.
But justifiable rage at the callous institutional mistreatment of foreign-born citizens and residents is only one of “Antigone’s” topical concerns. Deraspe’s last film was the documentary “The Amina Profile,” which investigated the global catfishing incident that was the “A Gay Girl In Damascus” blog. And you can draw a straight line from many of its themes to “Antigone,” which is also interested in the perilous, social-media-assisted process by which a person — especially a young person, especially a young woman — can be remade as a symbol.
Antigone (Ricci) is a bright high school student living in raucous familial closeness with her beloved grandmother Méni (Rashida Oussaada), her brothers Étéocle (Hakim Brahimi) and Polynice (Rawad El-Zein), and hairdresser sister Ismène (Nour Belkhiria). They are residents, though not citizens, having fled to Canada following the murder of Antigone’s parents — an incident described in moving, hazily-remembered detail by Antigone to her classmates. One of them, Haemon (Antoine Desrochers), privileged son of local politician Christian (Paul Doucet), follows her home afterwards and a tentative romance begins. The idyll is brief.
One day, rushing to the defense of his gang-affiliated brother, Étéocle is shot dead by police, and Polynice is arrested for assaulting the officer thereafter. As he is no longer a minor, and already has a record of petty crime, the weak-willed Polynice faces deportation. Antigone, convinced he will not be able to cope and aware that her own status as a legal minor will make her punishment much lighter, enacts a bizarre plan to impersonate her brother so that he can escape custody and flee. But the authorities use underhanded methods — arresting Méni, setting bail beyond their means, dangling the carrot of citizenship — to get her to give Polynice up. She steadfastly refuses and is detained indefinitely, becoming a literal symbol of #resistance, with her image stenciled all over the city and her soundbites turned into slogans by the devoted Haemon. But all the while her age of majority creeps closer and the prospect of serious jail time looms.
Deraspe, acting as her own cinematographer, has an airy, fluid visual sense that lends dynamism even to sterile courtroom scenes, and that finds a riveting point of focus in Ricci’s light-eyed, steady gaze. And while in other hands the occasional frenetic amateur video or TikTok-style clip montage might seem painfully gimmicky, Deraspe’s sparing use of that aesthetic — always in the context of something that one of Antigone’s supporters might have made to share on social media — justifies the choice. And otherwise the craft follows the content, in being a synthesis of classical and current, most literally in Jean Massicotte and Jad Orphée Chami’s flexible scoring, which punctuates modern passages with short, classical music phrases, all of which sit seamlessly beside the fragments of hip hop, Algerian folk music and pop tunes that litter the soundtrack.
Sophocles’ “Antigone” is a tragedy. Deraspe’s “Antigone” is one, too, though subtler, less about loss of life than loss of idealism, as Antigone begins to realize that no one else, no matter how much she loves them, can live up to her own ferociously high standards of loyalty and self-sacrifice. And it’s a testament to Deraspe’s intelligent writing and again to Ricci’s superb, pugnacious yet vulnerable performance that such an internalized, abstract tragedy can be as moving as it is.
But it also points to the single area in which Deraspe’s otherwise convincing, ambitious, many-tentacled storytelling falls a little short: Her film is both a critique of this process of mythologization and an example of it. Antigone is presented as a martyr (there’s even a hair-cutting scene that could come straight from “The Passion of Joan of Arc”) but it’s a little too easy to lay the blame for her martyrdom on venal institutions and compromised authorities. In so doing, we get to absolve ourselves, the general public, from the part we play at this strange moment in time, in looking to the Malalas and the Parkland survivors and the Greta Thunbergs of the world to save us from the mess we’ve made. They may be inspirational symbols of integrity and grace, who can become galvanizing forces for change. But they are also children, and that should not be their job.