‘Maria Chapdelaine’, Post-Racial French-Canadian Heroine?

Films at this year’s TIFF broaden the discourse

This year at the Toronto International Film Festival, every feature opens with a dedication to Alanis Obomsawin, a First Nations documentarian who the festival is spotlighting with her own film section. TIFF is also recognizing the 89-year old filmmaker for her decades-spanning career with the TIFF Tribute Award, a lifetime achievement honor. TIFF’s strong commitment to indigenous rights shouldn’t surprise anyone. It might even be necessary, given the recent controversy of mass unmarked graves near a residential school.

There’s surprising depth in the entire TIFF catalog this year, beyond just the native film sections, hinting at a more humanistic approach than the all-too-easy allies-versus-racists paradigm that’s come to dominate the discourse around race relations.

Of the greatest immediate significance in this regard is the latest adaptation of Maria Chapdelaine, the 1913 romance novel of Quebec pioneer life. One might expect that such a story, which depicts a time period when Canada widely saw residential schools a civilizing influence on savage tribes, would make a point of invoking this. But in fact references to natives in Maria Chapdelaine are quite fleeting, and the movie doesn’t have any native characters. The sprawling film, which lasts for more than two and a half hours, doesn’t dwell on these subjects for a fairly simple reason. The main characters don’t see these matters as relevant.

While pioneers have gotten a bad rap for being the abstract representation of native genocide in the Americas, their actual motives had little to do with white supremacy. As the movie meticulously demonstrates, Maria’s father Samuel keeps uprooting his family from completed farms to new ones that he has to rebuild from the ground up because he dislikes society. Samuel is a religious man who prefers to be close to God rather than other men, and sees the beautiful wilderness as the closest equivalent. The movie doesn’t say this explictly, but it’s hard to come up with any other interpretation when it dedicates so much screen time to the greater Canadian landscape. In the early 20th century, nature was still a very dangerous place, and the movie bitterly questions Samuel’s logic.

But if chronic pioneer Samuel Chapdelaine didn’t benefit from his own hard work, who did? Well, it’s a bit complicated to get into, but the short answer is urban capitalists. Explicit references to capital are sparse throughout Maria Chapdelaine, although the sheer absence of dialog in general makes such references more noteworthy. Maria’s favorite suitor, Francois, has a strong relationship with native trappers thanks to his father. But because of a lack of initial capital, Francois’ father was unable to parlay this relationship into greater personal wealth, and in the present day Francois has to take on more traditional jobs in order to make ends meet.

Contrast this with Lorenzo, another suitor who talks big about the wonders of cities, and feels that Maria deserves a life of comfort, not hard work. This is another aspect of pioneer life that that we seldom acknowledge that it’s not really freedom, because you have to work all the time. In a moment reminiscent of Fight Club, of all things, the movie notes  that farmers don’t own farms. Rather, the farms own them.

We also see tension building in the latter part of the film as city-aligned characters look down on the farmers with increasing condescension. This in spite of the fact that the pioneers are opening up access to the raw materials that makes city life possible to begin with. That trend is of startling relevance to the modern day, where polarization between urban and rural sectors, in the United States anyway, has rapidly intensified over the last few years.

The movie likewise depicts Maria’s fate as one of practicality rather than misogyny. And indeed, with what we see of men’s lives, it’s not like they were living that luxuriously either. Ironically Lorenzo is probably the most sexist of the characters, despite offering Maria the biggest promises. Or more accurately, because he offers Maria the biggest promises, acting as if she should be treated as a porcelain doll rather than someone who is just as capable as any man.

No easy explanations

Other films offer similar nuance on the often multifaceted attitudes people have, and how cultural racism is often only a part of that. In The Odd Job Men, for example, a senior plumber in Barcelona resists a new Moroccan apprentice. Partially this is because of racism but mostly because he’s just a grumpy guy who hates change on general principle.

The Survivor, about Holocaust survivor turned boxer Harry Haft, has its most in-profile Nazi character explicitly say that racism isn’t the most direct motivator for their actions. Not that this makes what they’re doing any less evil. I should note that The Survivor is a bit of a mess structurally, using non-chronological ordering for no good reason, and that Danny DeVito is barely even in it at all. Fair warning.

Where Is Anne Frank?, an animated feature from Waltz With Bashir director Ari Forman, is an easier sell, despite also using a gimmick. Basically Anne Frank’s imaginary friend Kitty tries to make sense of a modern world where people understand Anne Frank’s story literally but not symbolically. It takes a while to get there, but Forman calls out the image of Anne Frank as being a kind of Magical Jew who believes people are inherently good rather than as a crabby teenage girl. Where Is Anne Frank? functions quite well as a critique of ineffective, self-serving, anti-racist rhetoric.

So does the bulk of the TIFF catalog, really, just not in so explicit a way. While not every film shown there was a masterpiece, I’m inclined to see any movie with political themes promoted as an official selection in a more positive light. The programmers clearly knew what they were doing.

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William Schwartz

William Schwartz is a reporter and film critic based in Seoul, South Korea. He writes primarily for HanCinema, the world's largest and most popular English language database for South Korean television dramas and films.

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