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A 21st-Century Greek Tragedy

Sophocles’ tragic heroine becomes a modern-day teenager in director Sophie Deraspe’s Antigone (2019). Staff writer Julia Tolda attended the screening at the 2020 Athena Film Festival, below is her review. (Content warnings: police brutality, murder) 

A young green-eyed girl stares directly at the camera, her dark hair practically shaved. A flash goes out, illuminating the white sterile background, as a voice from beyond the camera reminds her of her rights and asks her who she would like to call. “No one,” she responds, “my parents are dead.”

Adapting a classic Greek play into a modern film is no easy feat. 

Sophocles’ three-part tragedy about Oedipus culminates in Antigone, which tells the story of the king of Thebes’ eldest daughter. With both her parents and brothers (Polynices and Eteocles) dead, Antigone and her sister Ismene are left completely alone. Due to his rebellion against Thebes, the new king Creon decides that Polynices’ body will be left to rot. Antigone goes against Creon and gives her brother a proper burial. This leads to her imprisonment, and later, her suicide. Distraught, her fiancé and Creon’s son, Haemon, also kills himself. 

But in director Sophie Deraspe’s story, Antigone (Nahéma Ricci) is no Greek princess. She is a young immigrant in Quebec living with her three siblings (Polynice, Étéocle, and Ismène) and her grandmother, Méni (Rashida Oussaada). Bright and kind, she attracts the attention of rich and privileged Haemon (Antoine Desrochers) after recounting the murder of her parents and her family’s subsequent immigration at a school presentation. 

Soon, their love story takes a dark turn. Polynice (Rawad El-Zein), the family’s golden boy, is murdered by a police officer and Étéocle (Hakim Brahimi) is arrested for assaulting his brother’s killer. Facing deportation, Antigone devises a plan to help him escape and takes his place in jail. What follows is, as Sophocles intended, a heart-wrenching tragedy. 

Ricci is a phenomenal lead. Her face dominates the screen for most of the movie, in beautiful close-ups in which the extent of Antigone’s love and pain are shown. I was deeply moved by her acting, ranging from sheer happiness (dancing and singing in the living room with her family) to her numbness (willingly impersonating her brother and being arrested, without shedding a tear). It is easy to empathize with this loyal and strong Antigone, all due to Ricci’s impeccable acting. 

The stroke of genius comes with the subtle translation of Sophocles’ Greek chorus. Montages are shown at various parts of the movie about the repercussions of Antigone’s story on social media. Polynice is exalted and berated, Antigone becomes the symbol of the resistance led by her boyfriend, Haemon. 

Other nods to the play can be noticed by the careful viewer. The blind prophet Tiresias becomes Theresa, a therapist in Antigone’s nightmare. A sign says “Oedipus King” in the bus taken by Isméne (Nour Belkhiria) and Méni. Creon becomes Christian (Paul Doucet), Haemon’s rich politician father. 

As the tragedy unfolds, I couldn’t help but ask myself what I would do in this situation. “Is your love as strong, is your bond to your family as unbreakable as mine?” Antigone seems to ask from beyond the screen, mirroring her ancient namesake. With the addition of 21st-century woes such as protests, police brutality, and immigration, Deraspe creates a story that feels both timeless and painfully real. 

However, the penultimate scene breaks the tense and emotional dynamic created throughout the movie. In an awkward sex scene between Antigone and Haemon in the meadow (as it rains), Antigone finally prioritizes herself above her family. But the disjunction between the movie’s previous hour and this moment feels inconsistent. To equate Antigone’s freedom with losing her virginity felt out of character and didn’t sit well with me.

On a surface level, Antigone is a beautiful movie that brings an iconic Greek play to the modern era in order to criticize the treatment of immigrants in the 21st-century. But it is also about a young girl’s coming of age in a harsh and unforgiving world, where her fate was set in stone before she even set foot in Canada.

Adapting a classic Greek play into a modern film is no easy feat. But Sophie Deraspe does much more than that, by updating Antigone into a present-day symbol of loyalty and injustice.

The O.G. Antigone via Wikimedia Commons 

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1 Comment

  • Gabriel Gollo says:

    @Gabriel Gollo I have not seen the movie, but your review makes me want to rush to go see it. Antigone is indeed a timeless story and, as you described it, Deraspe has done an excellent job of bringing it to life in our modern day globalized world. Congrtulations on your artistic sensibility and refined writing

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