AFI FEST 2017: ‘Hochelaga terre des âmes’ ✮✮✮✮✮

“Hochelaga, Land of Souls” (Hochelaga terre des âmes) is a movie concerned with the distance past and how the past is discovered and represented. The movie screened Friday (10 November) and Monday (13 November) at AFI FEST.

The movie begins with an idyllic scene–a green forest but there are no signs of life. Soon enough we see signs of death and a man in a golden eagle cloak whose face is whitened.  These sons have been sacrificed, but at first it isn’t clear the nature of the deaths in the distant past. The mystery is one for the history detectives, the ones from universities and museums–cultural and physical anthropologists. We glimpse at the researchers before we go back again.

Six years ago, another a group of American football players from McGill University (Montreal) are getting a pep talk. “Who’s afraid of rain?” the coach asks, comparing the men who were concerned with the weather to Lilliputians.  They, the Redmen,  are out for revenge against the Bishop Gaiters; they are going to war on their home field. Torrential rains have fallen on the fields, but the night is crisp and clear.

One of them has texted a woman who is on an airplane. She’s vomiting in the plane’s bathroom and when her plane arrives, she takes a taxi. Once home, she takes a pregnancy test. She sends a text to the man she loves. “Call me back,” says the message to the ill-fated LeBlanc.

At the Molsom Stadium, a sinkhole swallows up LeBlanc and almost another player. Baptiste Asigny (Samuel Tremblay) is called by Professor Benoit Saulnier (Alexis Martin). Saulnier believes that the sinkhole has opened up evidence of the fabled settlement of Hochelaga.

Dreams of Redmen and First Nation warriors mix. The movie is framed by Baptiste Asigny’s doctoral thesis which is revealed to us in flashbacks that add more insight than he could have possibly guess from pure science. The 13th century battle is a beginning. The First Nation Iroquois prophet advises the lone survivor of the battle Asigny (Samian) in a manner that resonates with what will happen in the future.

Much later, a young man  Étienne Maltais (Emmanuel Schwartz) is in love with a First Nation woman, Akwi (Tanaya Beatty), from the Mountain Mission in 1687. He wants to marry her in seven days. They trade mementos: pendants after spending a lustful night together, warming each other near the stove which the archeologists find evidence of. She gives him an necklace with an animal pelt. He gives her a locket with a portrait of his mother. He, unfortunately, has bloody sores on his back and a cough. Maltais develops “purple fever” and seeks help from a Catholic hospital. But the hospital staff worries about his soul being lost to his pagan ways represented by the necklace. He worries about missing his rendezvous with his love.

From the discovery of carefully wrapped rifles, a tale about two desperate men seeking refuge with a widow of a well-established family is revealed, marking the rebellion of 1837. Girard considers the possible misinterpretation of the gifts Jacques Cartier (Vincent Perez) to the Iroquois chief (George Wahiakeron Gilbert).

Hochelaga is the name of an Iroquoian village that Cartier described in the 16th century as being in or around the Mount Royal when he arrived on 2 October 1535. Yet the village is not mentioned by Cartier when he returned in 1541 and war has been suggested as one possible reason that Hochelaga disappeared.

Writer/director François Girard has made a movie that covers almost 800 years of Montreal history, illustrating smaller personal tragedies within the sweep of historical events without resorting to stereotypes. Instead of focusing on the clashes between the First Nation tribes and the Europeans, he chooses to highlight the inner conflicts between the two groups.

For the curious, the only reference I could find about a sinkhole near McGill University was one that opened up in April 2012 , but that one didn’t swallow any people. There was a sinkhole that swallowed up a backhoe in 2013. 

“Hochelaga: Land of Souls” screened on 10 November 2017 at AFI FEST. In French, English and Mohawk with English subtitles.


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