Sophie Deraspe’s adaptation of Sophocles’ Antigone is so different from the original that it’s tempting to skip a review of the plot of the play. But still…Sophocles’ version, written almost 2,500 years ago, deals with the burial of two brothers, Eteocles and Polynices, who died fighting on opposite sides of a civil war. Eteocles, having been on the winning side, is given a hero’s burial. Polynices, having fought for the losing rebel side, is refused burial and his body is ordered to lie unburied on the battlefield. One of their two sisters, Antigone, believes that Polynices deserves a burial, and she buries him herself. It is this aspect of the play, Antigone’s independence and rebellion against authority, and her devotion to her family, that inspired Deraspe. Although Deraspe’s film concerns Algerian immigrants living in Canada, she has retained the original Greek names for her characters.
The Antigone of the film was born in Kabylia, a minority region in northeastern Algeria. When she was three years old, she watched as the dead bodies of her parents were dumped in front of their house. Antigone (Nahéma Ricci), her sister, Ismène, her two brothers, Étéocle and Polynice, and their grandmother, Ménécée, flee Algeria and are accepted as political refugees in Canada.
Fourteen years later, as the story begins, Antigone is a star, prize-winning high school student. Ismène is a hairdresser. Étéocle is a handsome, good-natured, talented football (soccer) player. Polynice is a gang member engaged in shady, illegal activities. One day, Étéocle and Polynice are gathered with friends when the police come running at them. Mistaking Étéocle’s cell phone for a gun, the police kill him. Polynice assaults the guilty policeman and is arrested. Étéocle is given a hero’s funeral and is widely eulogized online. Polynice, with an existing criminal record, is threatened with deportation.
Antigone believes not only that her family needs to stay together, but that if Polynice is forced to return to Algeria, he will never survive. She hatches a plan to disguise herself and help her brother escape by taking his place in prison. She reasons that because she is a minor without a criminal record, she will not be treated too harshly by Canada’s criminal justice system. She paints duplicates of her brother’s gang tattoos on her body and convinces her sister to cut her hair in Polynice’s style. Antigone, accompanied by her grandmother, enters the prison and successfully makes the switch.
It doesn’t take long for the prison officials to discover that they’ve been played. As for Antigone, she soon learns that the criminal justice system, even for minors, is worse than she had imagined. And her grandmother is also arrested.
Eventually, Antigone’s case becomes a cause célèbre among young people online and in the streets. And her boyfriend’s father, a well-known politician, intervenes. Antigone is given the choice between Canadian citizenship and deportation.