TIFF Review: 'Maria Chapdelaine' Re-Introduces a Canadian Classic Directed by Sébastien Pilote

Starring Sara Montpetit, Antoine Olivier Pilon, Robert Naylor, Émile Schneider
TIFF Review: 'Maria Chapdelaine' Re-Introduces a Canadian Classic Directed by Sébastien Pilote
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When you think of classic Canadian novels, Anne of Green Gables is sure to come to mind first as its many adaptations from stage to screen have kept Lucy Maud Montgomery's story of the titular red-headed orphan alive. A few years later, in 1913, another classic Canadian work was published, but despite a few film adaptations, Maria Chapdelaine has been relatively forgotten. Writer-director Sébastien Pilote is bringing the coming-of-age story of the teenaged Maria and her family of Quebec pioneers back into the public consciousness.

Set in 1910 Quebec at the edge of a pioneer settlement, Maria (Sara Montpetit in her first role), her mother, father and siblings face the elements on their secluded farm, both harsh and beautiful. It's a slice-of-life portrait of a family and their way of life. The film spends much of its long runtime focusing on their daily routine, but it's never dull, and you get invested in the decision Maria must make for her future — who she must marry. Despite the time and its conventions, it's refreshing that she is able to take her future into her own hands. Maria must choose between three men: Eutrope (Antoine Olivier Pilon) who lives on a small, nearby homestead; Lorenzo (Robert Naylor) the mill-working city slicker; and her fur trader crush François (Émile Schneider). Her feelings for François are obvious with simply a look, and their chemistry works without words as the other two men look longingly at her knowing where her feelings lie. Promising to marry each other in the coming spring, the audience anxiously awaits François's return as Maria does, but this is no fairy tale.

With tranquil energy and a sweeping score, Maria Chapdelaine is a film full of love, yearning, and grief through the rosy-cheeked perspective of a girl coming of age. Thanks to its writing and tremendous cast, we are transported to a time where an easy life didn't mean a fulfilling one, and freedom meant something different for those who lived off the land and those who walked the pavement.

The 2021 Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 9 to 18. Get info about in-person and online screenings at the festival website. (Item 7)