Manners of Dying Jeremy Peter Allen

This surprisingly absorbing Canadian feature thinks it's about capital punishment, but it strikes at metaphorical issues more germane to our own execution-free nation. The setting is the fictional Cantos execution facility, where prisoner Kevin Barlow (Roy Dupuis) is executed over and over again, assuming different personalities and taking different approaches to his inevitable death. Facility director Harry Parlington (Serge Houde) goes through exactly the same motions every time, but the many faces of Barlow manage to reveal the cracks in the system and the absurdity of running something so final by clockwork and procedure.

There's a sense that the film plays all its cards too soon, and at least one of the vignettes could be excised without it feeling missing; it's also a touch obsessed with official diction and could use a little colloquial speech to leaven the austerity. And it's strange that a Canadian film would devote its energies to a foreign (and implicitly American) social phenomenon instead of dealing with pressing internal matters. There's a sense also that the film has nothing to do with capital punishment, and instead with the conscience of a bureaucracy pitted against people caught in its grip. Scratch its would-be social studies class and you'll find the Canadian nightmare: a mesh of good intentions hardening into orthodoxy and crushing any contingent human responses under a wall of obligations.

In this sense, it's one of the most lucid and resonant explorations of the national soul in recent memory. It may be self-deceived, but its delusions are much more on the money than those of the likes of Atom Egoyan and make it possibly the sleeper of the season. (Chrystal)