It’s telling that Sophie Deraspe wastes little time on the inciting incident of “Antigone,” a police shooting of Eteocle (Hakim Brahimi), a young Algerian immigrant whose cell phone is mistaken for a gun. He was approaching to protest the arrest of his younger brother Polynices (Rawad El-Zein) under similarly specious charges when he’s forced to the ground while playing jacks, having ties to a local gang, and Deraspe need not linger on the tragedy in her loose update of the Sophocles play when anyone watching her latest feature can most assuredly imagine it for themselves now that it’s happening with such frequency, but are likely far less familiar with the possibly even more devastating aftermath, particularly for a family with precarious immigration status. Once welcomed to Montreal with open arms as a result of political asylum, the Hipponomes, a family of four siblings and their grandmother Meni, already bereft of parents whose death pushed them to leave Kabilya, are threatened to be torn apart when the threat of deporting Polynices as a result of his sentence comes into play.
Although she couldn’t imagine the exact circumstances, it’s a situation that Antigone (Nahéma Ricci), the boys’ sister, seems to have been anticipating with dread when you see in an early moment that she compelled to add “…and keeping unity” to Eteocles’ new year’s dinner speech wishing peace and prosperity for all around the table. You know that this isn’t to be when just moments before Deraspe introduces the young woman doing a perp walk, but for what exactly remains a mystery until after Eteocles’ death when she hatches a plan so that she won’t lose two of her brothers that puts her at odds with the law. Her idea is brilliant, but even after Antigone’s worked it through, it would seem difficult for the director to pull it off cinematically without straining credulity, yet remarkably Deraspe does so convincingly and gives herself the runway for a beast of a drama that compares favorably with the outsider tales of Jacques Audiard such as “Dheepan” and “A Self-Made Hero” albeit with a youthful energy all its own.
Deraspe lets the passion behind the film explode with mixed media montages that reflect the story’s place in greater society while leaning on a powerful lead performance from Ricci, whose unquestionable conviction as Antigone makes it understandable why everyone else onscreen admires her so, with the film feels as modern as ever in capturing a dynamic in which her personal sacrifice is deeply admired while no one else can fathom going to the lengths she does, seemingly inured by a system that enforces laws out of apathy rather than rationale. While Deraspe’s last film, the nonfiction “The Amina Profile,” suggested a narrative filmmaker eager to break out of documentary conventions, the opposite is true of “Antigone” as it follows its protagonist throughout the legal process with such small, rich dramatic details that feel as if they couldn’t possibly be made up, making it all the more tragic with how the Hipponomes are failed at every turn. Still, it’s invigorating to see “Antigone” do justice to such a family and honor the complexities of their situation while delivering an emotionally direct and electrifying drama.
“Antigone” screens at the Toronto Film Festival at the Scotiabank on September 9th at 6 pm, September 10th at 5:30 pm and at the Bell Lightbox on September 13th at 6:15 pm.