Antigone (2019) ☆☆☆(3/4): A provocative modern adaptation of one classic tragedy

Canadian film “Antigone”, which won the Toronto International Film Festival Award for Best Canadian Film in last year, was an interesting experience for me in more than one aspect. While I sometime felt frustrated with its young heroine’s inexorable stubbornness, I came to understand more of how fiercely she is driven by her personal belief, and I came to observe her inevitable arrival point with a mix of pity and resignation.

After the brief opening shot showing its heroine under a very serious situation, the movie, which is based on the famous Greek tragedy of the same name by Sophocles, shows us how things have been fairly good for her and her dear North African immigrant family. When Antigone (Nahéma Ricci) was very young, she and her three older siblings had to leave their country along with their grandmother Méni (Rachida Oussaada) after losing both of their parents, and, so far, they have settled pretty well together in Montreal, Canada as shown from how cheerfully they share a meal together in their small but cozy residence. In addition, Antigone has been a promising high school student who surely deserves an opportunity for better life, and her family members wholeheartedly rejoice over her receiving a big scholarship for her college education,  

However, we sense a trouble right from when the camera looks at one of Antigone’s two older brothers. While he is liked by not only Antigone but also the other family members, it is pretty apparent that Polynice (Rawad El-Zein) is heavily involved in a local criminal organization of their neighborhood, and Antigone understandably has some reservation when her brother suddenly comes home with a very expensive music player set, which he claims was simply bought from somewhere at a cheap price.  

And then something really serious finally happens not long after that. While Polynice is hanging around with others including his older brother Étéocle (Hakim Brahimi), they are ambushed by police officers, who come to the scene for arresting Polynice. While the police officers try to arrest Polynice, Étéocle attempts to intervene in this situation, and that turns out to a very unwise choice, which eventually gets himself killed by one of the police officers at the scene.

While grieving a lot on Étéocle’s death during the following aftermath, Antigone and his other family members receive another bad news. Although Antigone and her family have stayed in Canada for several years, none of them has gotten citizenship yet, so Polynice, who incidentally has a long criminal record, will be soon deported back to their country. While the public opinion on the incident has been sympathetic to Étéocle’s death, it looks like there is no way to stop Polynice’s immediate deportation at all, and Antigone’s aging grandmother is certainly quite heartbroken by this cold fact.            

Because family is more important than anything else in her viewpoint, Antigone fatefully decides to do something very drastic for saving Polynice. First, she prepares a bit for looking more like Polynice, and her disguise, which is polished further by some help from her grandmother and her older sister Ismène (Nour Belkhiria), looks mostly good enough to buy enough time for letting Polynice escape from the prison and then run away to somewhere beyond the reach of the police.

Polynice successfully escapes shortly after he and Antigone switch their appearance and clothes while nobody is looking at them except their grandmother during a prison visit, but Antigone’s disguise is inevitably exposed, and the second half of the movie focuses on her stubborn stand against the legal system already ready to suppress her. She promptly pleads guilty without hesitation, but her trial turns out to be quite longer than expected, and she is also reminded again of how she has turned a blind eye to what her older brothers did behind their back.

While keep getting cornered by the system, Antigone also receives considerable help and support from several outside characters who really care about her and her case. While her public defender turns out to be more helpful than expected, her handsome boyfriend is willing to drag his politically influential father more into the situation, and her case gets a lot of public exposure as reflected by a montage sequence full of various social media activities, which amusingly function as, yes, the Greek chorus of the story.  

And there is also a subplot involved with a facility where Antigone is incarcerated along with a group of female juvenile delinquents. Although her first day at the facility is rather rough, it does not take much time for her to show more defiance and then earn admiration from her fellow jail mates, and there is a little poignant moment when they show some solidarity to her at one point later in the story.

Of course, the story eventually heads to more ordeals and heartbreaks for its young heroine as demanded, and that is where the screenplay by director/writer Sophie Deraspe, who also served as the co-editor/co-cinematographer for her film, becomes less convincing while going all the way for full-blown melodrama. The result is a bit jarring at times, but newcomer Nahéma Ricci’s unadorned but powerful lead performance firmly holds the film together, and she is utterly devastating when fate throws a big blow which almost destroys her character’s spirit and determination.           

On the whole, “Antigone” deserves to be commended for transferring its old classic tragedy well to its modern background coupled with some thought-provoking contemporary issues. I must admit that I often observed its story and characters from the distance mainly due to its adamantly fateful classic narrative without much choice, but, seriously, what can you possibly expect more from the adaptation of a Greek tragedy?

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