Montreal film Antigone borrows from Greek tragedy, death of Fredy Villanueva

Quebec writer-director Sophie Deraspe adapted Sophocles' play Antigone to fit a modern context, bringing the story of resistance and family loyalty to the streets of Montreal.

Quebec writer-director Sophie Deraspe adapted Sophocles' play to fit a modern context

Montreal actress Nahéma Ricci stars in the title role of Antigone, in which she plays a refugee whose family is torn apart by violence. (Antigone 2019)

Written in fifth century BC, Sophocles' play Antigone is one of the great Greek tragedies, right up there with Oedipus Rex and Euripides' Medea.

Roughly, it tells the story of a young woman who defies the laws of the land out of loyalty to her family.

She goes against an order from the king to bury the body of her brother and perform funeral rites for him, paying the ultimate price for her defiance.

For Quebec writer-director Sophie Deraspe, it is a story that still has a place in contemporary culture.

"It's a story about dignity, resistance," said Deraspe. "It's tragic because there's no way she can win against the system. The story spoke to me so much."

Antigone director Sophie Deraspe, right, and actress Nahéma Ricci celebrate Telefilm Canada's nomination of the film as Canada's entry for best international feature in the Oscars' race in September. (Graham Hughes/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Deraspe not only wrote and directed her adaptation of the Greek tragedy, but she also served as casting director, editor and director of photography. Oh, and she played piano in the film score.

"When I first read Antigone, [I found] it's a tragedy, but it was also so uplifting. That's what I wanted to bring with my contemporary translation of the story," she told CBC's All in a Weekend.

"I had Antigone in the back of my head and a little place in my heart for many years."

Villanueva shooting 'the spark'

In Deraspe's film, the main character of Antigone is a teenage girl whose family came to Montreal as refugees when she just a toddler.

"Tragedy hits her family when one of her brothers is gunned down by the police, and the other one is [arrested and] threatened with deportation," explained Deraspe. 

"So her normal student life with teenager aspirations — nothing counts anymore for her. Her only goal now is to keep her family together."

Deraspe said she was inspired by an interview she heard years ago with the sister of Fredy Villanueva.

Villanueva, 18, was shot and killed on Aug. 9, 2008 by Montreal police Const. Jean-Loup Lapointe, after the young man was caught playing an illegal game of dice with his brother and three friends in Henri-Bourassa Park.

Deraspe described this moment as the spark that led her to pursue a retelling of this ancient story.

After being taken into custody by police, teenage Antigone is interrogated by police and threatened with deportation. (Antigone 2019)

In the film, Antigone tries to help her surviving brother, a low-level drug dealer, break out of jail and ends up getting caught herself.

She befriends other young women in youth detention and sparks a protest movement in the community as news of her incarceration spreads.

In Sophocles' original play, Antigone is imprisoned for her actions and ends up taking her own life, as does her fiancé, the king's son.

Without spoiling the film's ending, Deraspe's adaptation is decidedly less bloody in its culmination.

Canada's Oscar entry

In September, ahead of the film's theatrical release, Telefilm Canada announced Antigone is this year's Canadian entry for Best International Feature Film at the 2020 Academy Awards.

Nahéma Ricci, left, and director Sophie Deraspe work behind the scenes on the film. (Photo by Lou Scamble)

It is competing against dozens of other films for a nomination in the category, previously known as best foreign-language film.

Nahéma Ricci, the Montreal actress who plays the title role in Antigone, said slipping into the role of "such a strong female character that has such integrity" was an unforgettable experience.

For Ricci, the prospect of the French-language film being tapped for an Oscar nomination is awe-inducing. 

"I've watched Oscar speeches since I'm a kid. So in the imaginary, it's really something," she said.

Ricci said a major nomination would mean a wider audience for the film outside of Quebec.

"In Trump's America, if this film could be seen and chosen, I think it could be great."

Antigone hit theatres in Quebec on Nov. 6. A short list of 10 films in the running for the 2020 Oscars will be unveiled Dec. 16, and the chosen five official nominees will be announced on Jan.13.


Marilla Steuter-Martin has been a journalist with CBC Montreal since 2015.

With files from CBC's All in a Weekend


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