There are few plots more compelling, and resonant on a deeply personal level, than those about families. It’s why Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina opening line “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” has drawn in readers for over a century; it’s why The Godfather, Hamlet, Little Women, Shameless and even the increasingly convoluted machinations of the Star Wars “Skywalker Saga” have continued to draw in audiences and acclaim. When your family is all you have in this world, we are asked, what would we do to protect them? And what wouldn’t we do—what wouldn’t we risk, what norms or laws wouldn’t we break—to do right by them?

As with many forms of theater and entertainment, the ancient Greeks made the mold we continuously cast, reshape and even break in our continuing efforts to tell stories about families. Sophocles’ Antigone (dating from roughly 441 BCE) tells the story of a young woman, Antigone (daughter of Oedipus—yes, that Oedipus), whose conviction and belief in her duty to her family surpass any obligation to the laws of the land or even her own survival. Antigone’s brother Polyneices, denounced by King Creon as a traitor to the city of Thebes in an earlier civil war against Antigone’s other brother Eteocles, has been denied a proper burial, with carrion birds given first pick of his entrails. Antigone, motivated by love for her family, disobeys Creon and buries Polyneices herself, giving him the funeral rites he was denied. Antigone’s sister Ismene wants to obey the law, while Antigone’s fiance Haemon (Creon’s son) urges his father to forgive her. As befits a Greek tragedy, Antigone is sentenced to death and ultimately dies by suicide, while Creon learns to regret his pride as his son and wife similarly meet tragic ends.

Antigone, director Sophie Deraspe’s French-Canadian adaptation of the original Sophocles play, highlights the core themes of the protagonist’s fierce and unshaken devotion to her loved ones while giving the plot a new and urgent relevance. Inspired in part by the Montreal police killing of Fredy Villaneuva in 2008, Deraspe moves the action from Thebes to the similarly cosmopolitan Montreal, where Antigone Hipponome (Nahéma Ricci, astounding), her siblings, and their grandmother Meni (Rachida Oussaada) are immigrant refugees from the Kabylia region of Algeria. We learn of the Hipponome family’s past at the same time Antigone’s classmates do—in a classroom presentation, where Antigone stands at the front of the room and relates her early memory of seeing her parents’ bodies loaded out of a truck, the story coming in fits and bursts. As if that early memory of violence has been embedded into her psyche in ways she doesn’t even consciously realize, Antigone dresses in a vibrant pink-red sweatshirt against the sea of muted blues, greens and purples of her Canadian classmates. (The trauma reappears as color motif in the clothing the rest of her family wears, which is saturated and embellished, in contrast to the duller clothes of the Canadians around them.)

While the Hipponome family struggles financially, they are, in essence, a happy family that has managed to survive following the traumas they escaped in Algeria—and, in the case of the bookish, quietly intense Antigone, even thrive, where her academic prowess has earned her a degree of respect and admiration among her fellow students. She even has a boyfriend—a tentative, gentle relationship with Hémon (Antoine Desrochers), the privileged, white son of local politician Christian (Paul Doucet). Meanwhile, Étéocle (Hakim Brahimi) has found some success playing soccer; Ismène (Nour Belkhiria) works at a hair salon, waiting for the day she can start her own and earn Canadian citizenship; Polynice (Rawad El-Zein), however, has fallen in with a local gang. A sudden encounter with law enforcement while the brothers and friends are playing jacks in a parking lot leaves the unarmed Étéocle dead at the hands of police and Polynice arrested with the promise that, if convicted, he will be deported back to Algeria, where his life will be at immediate risk. 

Antigone snaps to action immediately, not a trace of doubt in her mind; she will disguise herself as her brother, down to copying his arm tattoos with decals, and swap places with him in prison. The prison swap sequence itself plays like a tense, dramatic mini-thriller, with Antigone resolute and decisive, having planned it just well enough to buy Polynice enough time to escape the city and the long arm of the law. Once discovered (what seems to be about half an hour later), Antigone is interrogated by police and is packed off to an underage girls’ correctional facility. Meanwhile, Hémon enlists their classmates in protests, graffiti and online activism to win Antigone’s freedom, turning her defiant statement “mon coeur me dit” (my heart tells me) into a rallying cry. Inspired by her bravery, the girls in the facility begin to dye their hair the pink-red of the stencils and graffiti—the pink-red of Antigone’s sweatshirt—in their support of her. Grandmother Meni, prevented from contacting Antigone, chooses to sit just outside of the legal boundary zone outside the girls’ facility and sings to her for hours on end, lending her the strength to carry on even in the face of the Canadian legal system.

Nahéma Ricci, with the level-headed fervor of a martyr and wide eyes of a Greek-Egyptian funeral painting, is astounding in the title role; she carries out Antigone’s transformation from shy and passive schoolgirl to avenging angel smoothly and completely believably, making it clear that Antigone had this spine of steel inside her all along. Aside from Ricci, the performances in Antigone are uniformly strong if far less arresting; Antigone was Canada’s 2019 Academy Awards entry, but it does not seem as though Ricci’s performance has gotten the stateside attention it deserves. 

What makes this adaptation of Antigone particularly hard-hitting in 2020 (or rather, 2019, when it was released in Canada), is Deraspe’s choice to fully update the story to incorporate the issue of police brutality against vulnerable members of society—a reminder to American audiences that our struggle with this injustice is certainly not unique. As Algerian immigrants, the Hipponomes were targeted by the police; similarly, they could never expect a fair trial in the court of public opinion. In this imagining of Antigone, social media cleverly takes on the role of the Greek chorus, with several montages cut throughout like chapter headings showing how contemporary networks of communication allow both prejudices and social movements to spread beyond the boundaries of a small community.