The Canadian film Mesnak, which won Best Film, Best Actor (Victor Andres Trelles Turgeon), and Best Actress (Eve Ringuette) awards. Mesnak tells the story of a Native man who was adopted as a toddler and is now living in Montreal and working as an actor. He returns to the reserve where he was born and meets his mother and people for, essentially, the first time, and his struggles with his identity mirror those of the character he's been rehearsing—the lead in Shakespeare's Hamlet.
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Mesnak: the snapping turtle. Mesnak, the guardian spirit of the river, the forest, the Innu land. Mesnak, totem animal of a man who is now dead. Stumbling through the dark, hissing, he has a glowering presence that is felt throughout this film, evoking the crabs and flamingoes of Herzog or the owls of Lynch.
Into this land comes Dave (Victor Andres Turgeon-Trelles), the recipient of a cryptic message from an unknown sender, looking for his birth mother. Dave was adopted at the age of three and spirited away to the city; he has persuaded himself he can remember nothing of the time before. Upon arriving in the village of his birth he finds the people suspicious, learns that his mother is about to get married. He meets a brash young woman, Osalic (Eve Ringuette), with a painful secret of her own. The two find a point of mutual sympathy in a brutal world, but could it be there undoing?
Mesnak has to be up there with the very best screen adaptations of Hamlet. In part this is because of its decision - stated at the start, when Dave participates in an audition - to focus on the play's subtler themes. Redemption, loneliness and the connection of justice to something otherworldly are at the heart of it. The curiously fragile Osalic, seeking refuge in ancient Innu rituals, is an Ophelia whose connection with the supernatural becomes central to the tale. Marco Collin makes a curiously sympathic Claudius (or Claude) who seems to have genuine love for Gertrude (Kathia Rock), but to be no less guilty for it. Gertrude's connection with her son, when they finally meet, is unmistakably erotic, an intensity of repressed emotion which, unspoken, dominates them both.
Shot in tones of orange and brown that root it firmly in the earth, in a rural environment where the land dominates the people, Mesnak shifts sharply into greys and blues when we meet the turtle. Low, sensuous sound work creates an uneasy atmosphere. What is spoken is only the surface; there are several narratives at work here as Dave strives with increasing desperation to take control of his own destiny. His ordinariness and lack of pretension make him perhaps the most sympathetic Hamlet to date.
An ambitious transposition like this could easily have been a disaster. Mesnak not only gets away with it but delivers something that feels as though it ought always to have been told this way. It's the story of something bigger than revenge. It ought not to be missed.
Reviewed on: 30 Jan 2012
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