Reel Reviews | Maria Chapdelaine (TIFF ’21)

By Dennis Harvey | Variety

Among authors who didn’t live to witness their own success, Louis Hemon is a particularly unfortunate case — his novel “Maria Chapdelaine” was published in 1913, the same year as his train-struck death.

Thus he didn’t see it become an early Quebec-lit classic taught to generations of schoolchildren, published in translation worldwide, or adapted into many other media over the past century. Among prior screen versions were two made in his native France, 1934 one notable as Julien Duvivier’s first collaboration with Jean Gabin.

The slim book, drawing on adventure-seeking Hemon’s own experiences briefly working as a farmhand in the Lac-Saint-Jean region, has been treated with less-than-strict fidelity by previous dramatists. Sebastien Pilote’s new film is probably the most faithful to date by far — though that isn’t entirely a plus. Handsome and leisurely, this low-key portrait of isolated rural family life 110 years ago is a labor of love lacking an equal dose of inspiration. It’s a well-produced episodic tale whose incidents and personalities remain too modest to sustain nearly three hours’ illustration, given a lack of narrative momentum and one major casting shortfall.

The source material’s cultural significance and a talented director’s rising rep will place it among the year’s more significant releases within Canada, But this “Maria Chapdelaine” lacks the spark that might’ve given it wings as an attractive art-house or quality-television item abroad.

We first meet the titular teenage Maria (newcomer Sara Montpetit) attending Mass in town before traveling back home with her father, Samuel (Sebastien Ricard), via horse and sleigh — the last time they’ll be able to cross the Peribonka River thus before it freezes over again next winter. It’s also the last time we’ll glimpse “civilization” for the next 90 minutes, as the Chapdelaines live on a remote homestead that’s near inaccessible much of the year. This isolation is a burden to matriarch Laura (Helene Florent), whose husband has steadily moved them further and further from society. With six children to care for, plus farm labor, she’s hardly idle. But the absence of a community has been hard for her, as has the family’s ongoing subsistence struggle — the eldest sons already work seasonal logging jobs to help support all.

Unbeknownst to her kin, Maria has run across a longtime acquaintance in town: Francois Paradis (Emile Schneider), who on occasion returns to the area of his upbringing but prefers a trapper’s transient life, hunting and trading with Native peoples. Despite Francois’ infrequent appearances, something is brewing between him and Maria, who’s now of marriageable age. Then again, there’s the closer-to-home, more reliable future dangled by the Chapdelaines’ sole neighbor, young bachelor farmer Eutrope Gagnon (Antoine Olivier Pilon). Eventually, Maria has a third suitor in the form of visiting stranger Lorenzo Suprenant (Robert Naylor). He was also raised hereabouts but now lives in the almost unimaginably cosmopolitan environment of a midsize Massachusetts city, where he works in a factory.

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