Taking a 2,500 year old play and turning it into something as urgent, contemporary and fresh as this new film, which is Canada’s entry for the Oscars (as the spoken language is Quebecois), is no mean feat. But it is one that has been taken on by Sophie Deraspe, who is the writer, director, cinematographer and editor of the film. Antigone is a modern-day twist on the Greek Tragedy, weaving in themes of immigration, social media, the justice system and femininity/masculinity. The film centres around an astonishing performance from newcomer Nahema Ricci, as the titular Antigone – filled with noble sacrifice, righteous indignation and a burning desire to do the right thing. Through Antigone’s ultimate act of loyalty to her family, she becomes latched onto as a symbol of martyrdom – complete with a Joan of Arc look – and becomes a national media sensation.

Antigone, her two brothers, one sister and grandmother are refugees who came to Montreal when the children were small, after their parents were killed (the country and war they are fleeing is unspecified). Now the four children are teenagers; Antigone is an star student, on the cusp of going to college, her sister Ismene (Nour Belkhiria) is a hairdresser, eldest brother Eteocle (Hakim Brahimi) is a local football star and Polynice (Rawad El-Zein) is the black sheep of the family – involved with a gang of drug dealers. In a dispute with the police, Eteocle is shot and killed defending Polynice, who is arrested and threatened with deportation. Antigone makes the decision that she will help Polynice escape, by disguising herself as him, so they can swap places during a prison visit. Antigone is arrested and set to a detention centre for young women. Her cause is taken up by the media and she becomes a symbol of protest against police brutality and the mistreatment of immigrants. Antigone’s boyfriend Hemon (Antoine DesRochers) and his father Christian (Paul Doucet), a politician, try to help her.

The acting is definitely one of the biggest strengths of Antigone, with Ricci almost entirely carrying the emotional weight of the story on her young shoulders. Seeing her go from naivete and idealism to disillusionment – not only with the justice system, but also with her family, as she is let down repeatedly by Polynice and realises that Eteocle was not as perfect as she had thought – is heartbreaking. The structure and editing (by Geoffrey Boulange and Deraspe) are masterful, with frequent intercuts of social media messages and videos of support (acting as the Greek chorus) for Antigone, which are representative of how teens use TikTok, Snapchat etc without being patronising or cringey. Antigone quickly becomes a meme rather than a human being, which is one of the most realistic aspects of the film.

The shooting style is dynamic and fresh, but always returns to Ricci, frequently centering her youthful features, light eyes and dark short hair (reminiscent of Maria Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc) in close up reaction shots. The classical score by Jad Orphee Chami and Jean Massicotte punctuates the modern hip hop and traditional folk music of the family’s home country beautifully. There is a stunningly-shot sex scene in a field of white flowers which again, absolutely pivots on Antigone’s experience and point-of-view. The hostility-turned-camaraderie of the other girls in the detention centre is moving without being schmaltzy, as is Antigone’s grandmother’s vigil that she keeps up just outside. The screenplay mostly successfully balances the melodramatic and epically tragic nature of the source material with something which is authentic and necessary to today’s world.

Coming from the world of documentary, Antigone is an astonishing narrative feature debut for Deraspe, as well as a showcase for its young star’s talents. Ricci conveys anger, noble defiance and dignity in the face of injustice and betrayal with an emotional maturity beyond her years, while also communicating the traits of a fool-hardy teenager who thinks she can take on a system and beat it. It’s a story of a close-knit family torn apart by the gang culture surrounding drugs, trigger-happy police and institutions who cannot wait for an excuse to deport outsiders. It’s also about how a flawed and human young woman can become a mascot, a martyr, a symbol for a society desperate to have heroes to latch onto and uplift, as can be seen with Malala Yousafzai, Emma Gonzalez and Greta Thunberg. Perhaps it’s the government, systems and institutions themselves who should be solving society’s problems rather than them falling on the shoulders of teenage girls, however.

Rating: ★★★★

Directed by: Sophie Deraspe
Written by: Sophie Deraspe
Cast: Nahéma Ricci, Rawad El-Zein, Antoine DesRochers