February 5, 2021
The trials and tribulations of this Algerian family immigrating to Montréal speak to the challenges of integrating a new environment and society. But, just as in the Greek tragedy from which this film is inspired, Antigone, there are existential choices to be made along the way, and choosing between some of the alternatives is not a simple choice between good and evil. Which is why it is a tragedy.
Based on Sophocles’ Greek tragedy, Antigone. Canadian drama of 2019, from director Sophie Deraspe. Won the Best Canadian film award at the Toronto film festival of 2019.
(spoiler alert: do not read this section if you wish to see the film for the first time without knowing the story in advance)
The father and mother of four Algerian teenagers are killed and their bodies dropped off at their home in Kabylia, Algeria. The spectator is not privy to the motives of the two killings, but it is presumed to be in the context of settling a dispute, possibly political.
The remaining members of the family, the grandmother, and the four teenagers-soon to be adults, immigrate to Canada as political refugees.
The names of the immigrating family members, in the film, mirror the names of the Greek drama of Sophocles, Antigone.
The main character, the intense and morally challenged Antigone, is the older sister of the two daughters, and Ismène, whose ambitions are essentially more mundane, is the younger daughter. Étéocle is the older brother, admired and revered by his younger brother, Polynice.
The two brothers are involved in street gangs in their new country and, during a police raid, the older brother Étéocle is killed by police during the scuffle, and the younger brother is arrested for assaulting an officer during the tragic events.
The surviving brother, Polynice, is then incarcerated.
Antigone, the main character of both the original Greek tragedy and of the film, is torn between difficult choices, between her loyalty to her accused brother and her efforts at fully adapting to her new setting, in particular, through her successful academic studies.
Choosing to put her loyalty to her brother above the rest, she plans and executes a scheme by which, through dissimulation during a prison visit to her brother, she tricks the authorities by replacing her brother in his cell, thus freeing Polynice.
The legal battles that follow result in some progress for the newly accused Antigone, but her efforts turn out to be vain, in good part because the fleeing brother is found and picked up by police in a local bar.
The concluding scenes of the film have the grandmother and Polynice ( both expelled) at the Montréal airport leaving Canada and returning to Algeria, leaving only the two daughters to stay in their adopted country.
The Movie Shrink's interpretation
There are many interpretations regarding this tragic story.
One of the first questions is to what extent the film is a true mirror of the Greek tragedy itself, in its modern and contemporary setting.
Predictably, some commentators have seen the film as a piece on prejudice, poverty, police brutality, and a heartless political and legal system. In a comment along these lines, one commentator even describes these elements as worse than death.
Following these types of interpretations, the film is seen as a battle between right and wrong, between failing institutions, on the one hand, and suffering citizens or would-be citizens, on the other.
These interpretations, in their rush for instant morality, tend to forget that real tragedy is not choosing between what is right and what is wrong, but the inevitable conflicts in the difficult task of determining what is right or what is wrong, sometimes involving what is right and wrong at the same time. In the original Greek tragedy, Antigone is torn between properly burying her deceased brother, with some unwanted outcomes for her safety, on the one hand, and other equally morally defensible, but opposite choices, on the other hand. That is why it is a tragedy.
In the Movie Shrink’s interpretation, a more fundamental subject of this film is the inevitable tension between the ethics of principles and the ethics of consequences. Within the principle of family solidarity, Antigone’s choice should be to support her brother at all costs, seeking at the same time justice for immigrants and all those without a voice. On the other hand, the practical consequences of these principled choices can backfire into her own personal and successful journey in her adopted country, not counting the negative effects these choices can have on the family’s prospects of staying in the host country.
Going a step further, The Movie Shrink believes there is another dimension to the age-old conflict between principle and consequences.
It has to do with the paradoxical effects of intensity.
There is an intensity element in Antigone’s choices of strong family solidarity and the struggle for justice for all. Of course, those choices are morally sound, seen in the perspective of the ethics of principles. But because of the precarious situation of the family, these choices imply an unavoidable degree of intensity.
A lot of the family’s choices were indeed built on intensity, whether it be Antigone’s action to support her brother, or the boys’ involvement in street gangs, where admission to the gang required some physical sacrifices and rituals leaving their marks. And, of course, the death of the two parents in Algeria were shrouded in tragic intensity.
Ismène, Antigone’s younger sister, has an overriding ambition, and that Is to integrate into the new country as best she can, aspiring to a normal life, in her words. That would seem mundane and less spectacular, but who is to say it is less valuable? Ismène seems to have chosen, for herself, a less intense road.
THE LARGER PICTURE
The real subject of the film appears to be intensity itself, as a socio-political factor.
Indeed, a strong dose of intensity does not seem to be an essential ingredient of successful socio-economic systems. Democratic give and take seem to be based on the quite cool idea that some persons other than ourselves might be right or have more information. Even voting itself, in democratic societies, is not such a big thing, with almost half of American voters not even bothering to exercise that right in a normal American presidential election.
The American president between 2016 and 2020 was very intense indeed, and so were his tweets, but this intensity has only led his followers to attack their own most precious institutions, in an afternoon of intense violence and destruction.
During the Arab spring of ten years ago, the very intense manifestations and public outcries in favor of democracy do not seem to have given lasting results. Yet they were intense, very intense indeed.
In terms of the ethics of consequences, younger sister Ismème’s choice to fit in, as best she can, in her new environment seems quite ordinary, unspectacular, but this less intense choice may have better concrete outcomes. What is true for her might be also true for larger entities.