800 years of history collide in Quebecois filmmaker François Girard’s sixth feature film Hochelaga, Land of Souls. While the present — in which Mohawk archaeologist Baptiste Asigny (Samian) is giving a talk on the discoveries made during his latest dig at a Montreal college football stadium — rolls on inexorably, the past bursts into life through the objects that Asigny uncovers. At first the film flashes back 6 years to the night of a match between McGill and their bitter rivals, during which one of the McGill players is swallowed up by a sinkhole opening up in the turf of “that sacred place.” (as McGill’s coach describes it) It is in their examination of the sinkhole that Asigny and his superior Antoine Morin (Gilles Renaud) find evidence of the fabled village of Hochelaga.
The first discovery, of a cast iron stove, whisks the story and the audience back to a 17th-century love affair between a native Algonquin woman (Tanaya Beatty) and a French colonialist (Emmanuel Schwartz). It ends with an outbreak of purple fever which sweeps through the region, decimating the French settlement in which Schwartz’s trapper resides. The second, a collection of muskets, brings to the fore the plight of two French Patriots fleeing from a Redcoat garrison during the Lower Canada Rebellion of 1837. They are given sanctuary by a wealthy widow (Siân Phillips) but are discovered and chased through the forest, where they are eventually caught by their British adversaries.
Asigny describes these as “incidental discoveries” in the context of his research, but such objects are connections to a past otherwise out of reach. The unearthing of a crucifix, described by the Iroquois chieftain as evidence that the colonialists venerate torture, is the holy grail for Asigny; it proves that the French explorer Jacques Cartier and his explorers met with the Iroquois people of Hochelaga, and also identifies the excavated area as the location of the historically significant Iroquois village.
Such is Girard’s ambition that Hochelaga, Land of Souls is bursting at the seams with imagery, metaphor and symbolism. At times these imagistic tableaux feel like vital revelations about worlds unimaginable to our modern perspective but at others they feel hollow, such as when it is suggested that each of the football players who took the field the night of the incident are descendants of the historical individuals present throughout the film. The film is the result of an attempt to learn from George Santayana’s warning that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” but by tackling such a vast swathe of Quebecois history in 100 minutes Girard occasionally leans too heavily on empty visuals.
Given the episodic nature of the plot, there was always a danger that Girard’s film could have felt fractured or incomplete. However the subtle backdrop of Terry and Gyan Riley’s score, which invokes the sounds of past times as if history were calling to us out of the shadows, weaves one complete canvas upon which the director can lay out his creation. It binds the different places and times together, playing into Girard’s essential message; there are many people, many countries and many tribes but, in Hochelaga, Land of Souls, we are all one.