In a modern-day take on the Ancient Greek play of the same name by Sophocles, ANTIGONE tells the tale of the Hipponomes, a family of Algerian refugees living in Quebec. They are a loving family of two brothers and two sisters and a grandmother. The youngest child, Antigone, is a top student with a bright future, but this all comes crashing down one day when her brother Polynice’s connections to gang violence leads to a tragic shooting and potential deportation. Desperate to keep the remains of her family together and to save Polynice, Antigone decides to switch places with him in prison. This sets off a chain of events where Antigone becomes a symbol of injustice in the Canadian justice system, but will her family ever be able to find peace again?
ANTIGONE presents a rather confused narrative. The directorial intent seems to want to highlight the injustices against asylum seekers in Quebec, but the complex situation of the Hipponome family and the representation of a prison and justice system, which is painted as quite adequate, seems to refute much potential criticism. Despite the horrible situation of the death of their brother via police shooting, Antigone and her brother Polynice are not personally treated unfairly by the justice system. Polynice is not being potentially deported for his first criminal offense, but rather after returning to a life of crime multiple times. Antigone, despite being a minor, broke several significant laws in helping a fugitive escape justice, and despite this is given compassionate representation and is helped by the juvenile courts. Yet, the film still tries to frame her time spent in juvenile detention and the potential deportation of her criminally connected family members as some great tragedy. Tragic it may be, but where does society draw the line when dealing with criminals, no matter what their circumstances might be? And how long should countries have to keep non-citizens when they actively and continuously undermine the rule of law?
It is in the interpretation of the original text where ANTIGONE greatly fails. The play raises the question of the importance of human dignity in death and civil disobedience against the laws of government. Does Antigone have the right to bury her disgraced brother in alignment with spiritual laws even if it goes against men? The film instead poses the question of whether Antigone has the right to break her brother out of jail if it means potentially protecting him against a supposedly unjust system she seems to barely understand. Antigone is stubborn and impulsive in her actions which lead to consequences greater than if she had left things alone or focused her passion towards more productive and legal ends.
Writer/director Sophie Deraspe takes little time to examine how her vast changes to the original text add complications to its moral philosophy. In the play, Polynice is dead and Antigone merely wishes to honor her family and the laws of the gods by performing burial rights. However, this decision goes against the law of the King and he sees it as a crime that must be punished in order to maintain law and order in society. In the film, Polynice is alive, and Antigone is convinced he will die if returned to Algeria (although the context of this assumption is never adequately explained). She will do anything in her power to protect him, even if that means going to prison herself and releasing the selfish and criminal Polynice onto the rest of society. The fundamental question remains similar in regards to the importance of the law of society vs the natural laws a person has to their family, but it seems an ingenuous point to make when in the play, the crime is victimless, and in the film, it involves allowing a fugitive to escape justice. Deraspe’s grasp on legal rights seems to be as simplistic as believing that it is okay to break the law, so long as the reason is something that the person really believes in passionately. The philosophical discussion of the morality of such actions is greatly lost and the film seems to want to inform audiences of what they should think and feel instead of raising interesting questions to be mulled over and contemplated.
The unhappy truth of ANTIGONE is that this could have been an interesting examination of the injustices against asylum seekers in the West with some minor changes to the screenplay. Deraspe seems to have fundamentally struggled with her interpretation of the original text fumbling not just the overarching themes and moral struggles, such as the importance of the arc of the Greek chorus, which she simplifies into some sort of poppy youth-led justice movement instead of a scathing look at the hypocrisy of the group-think of society which often seems to only care about its own protection over the rights of the individual. In a time where the discussion of the moral and legal rights of immigrants and asylum seekers is growing in importance, audiences deserve a deeper and more complex philosophical examination of the issues than was given to us in ANTIGONE. Despite some fine performances by the leads, there is little else to truly recommend in this preachy and unsophisticated adaptation.