MONTREAL, 1966. Sixteen-year-old Jean Corbo steps out of a downtown movie theatre, eyes downcast, expression dazed. He’s just watched The Battle of Algiers, Gillo Pontecorvo’s classic anti-colonial drama. With its feverish images of French-speaking, bomb-planting revolutionaries, the film has hit close to home, arousing Jean’s animosity towards the social and political institutions of Quebec. But Jean doesn’t know what to do with his anger. He lives in Canada—a world apart from Pontecorvo’s Casbah-rocking militants. He turns to his brother Claude and says what many Canadians must have surely thought as they surveyed the violent international political conflicts of the sixties: “That could never happen here.”
But, of course, it did. From 1963 to 1970, the separatist Front de libération du Québec (FLQ) was responsible for over 200 bombings. Mathieu Denis’ new film, Corbo, offers a vivid, often disturbing account of Jean’s role in that failed revolution. In his solo directorial debut, Denis depicts the early events and characters in the FLQ crisis, exploring how radical politics became an outlet for the fears, aspirations and self-destructive impulses of many young Quebecers.
In the spring of 1966, Jean is—and was, according to the historical accounts on which Denis has based his story—a young man at a crossroads, straddling the many paths that Quebec society might have taken during its Quiet Revolution. As the youngest son of an Italian father and a French-Canadian mother, he is a product of the province’s Francophone traditions as well as its burgeoning immigrant communities. A budding leftist from tony Mont-Royal, Jean is both a fierce supporter of the province’s labour movement and a beneficiary of the economic system it seeks to overthrow. Out of Jean’s conflicting loyalties and identities, Denis crafts an arresting portrait of a province caught between reformist and revolutionary impulses, between the Grande Noirceur of the Maurice Duplessis years and the uncertain future of the new protest movements.
Ever since Prochain épisode, Hubert Aquin’s iconic 1965 novel about an imprisoned Quebec militant, writers and filmmakers have been mining the FLQ crisis for its explosive material. Books and movies have had a lasting impact on how Canadians—especially those born after the troubles—have perceived this unusually violent period in their history. As novelist Louis Hamelin has observed, describing his FLQ epic October 1970, “an imagined story may strike with more force and embed itself for longer [than historical accounts] and perhaps even come to take the place of the truth.” Corbo achieves a similar effect. Not content to merely re-stage the events of the FLQ crisis, Denis offers a highly stylized reimagining of a largely forgotten story from its earliest years. And where so many films about the sixties tend to lose their characters amid an onslaught of psychedelic pageantry, Denis keeps his lens firmly trained on the somber rhythms and rituals of his characters’ everyday lives. In its own modest, dramatically nuanced fashion, Corbo leaves its mark on history.
The film’s theatrical release in April should cement Denis’ reputation as an important new voice in Canadian cinema. But Corbo’s cultural value resides less in its aesthetic merits than in the difficult, often troubling questions it asks about our national history. How did a country renowned for its peace and stability give rise to the darkness and despair of the FLQ crisis? How did so many young men and women, born to the unprecedented peace and prosperity of the postwar era, decide that violence was the solution to the ideological conflicts of their time?
CORBO UNFOLDS against the backdrop of Quebec’s 1966 provincial election, in which the conservative Union nationale (UN) lost the popular vote yet still took power due to a system that favoured rural voters. To Jean’s parents and their Italian friends, gathered around a radio in a room thick with cigarette smoke, the news of the UN’s victory is a mere nuisance, a temporary setback for the incumbent Liberal Party and its far-reaching social and economic reforms. For Jean’s brother Claude, it’s a poignant defeat for the separatist Rassemblement pour l’indépendance nationale. To young Jean, the election results are a decisive blow, irrevocably shattering his faith in Quebec’s machine-run, patronage-dominated political system. He begins to attend meetings at a local university, where a didactic leader, Mathieu, calls for a revolutionary avant-garde to shepherd the masses towards political salvation. It’s a deeply cynical worldview, rooted in the violent ideology of philosopher Frantz Fanon, but it’s a dose of clarity to the slouch-shouldered adolescent sitting in the back row. After years spent wavering between conflicting impulses and identities, Mathieu’s diatribes appeal.
As Jean drifts into the orbit of this emerging FLQ cell, Denis doesn’t endorse his radicalization so much as make it understandable. He shows how a lonely young man could find a sense of identity in the militant politics of the era, pushing himself into increasingly dangerous situations in order to affirm his fragile machismo. Jean and his new friends graduate from the breathless adventure of painting slogans on buildings to the early, tentative steps of planning an armed revolution. In fits and starts, driven as much by his guilt over his privilege as by his belief in the revolutionary future, Jean experiences the same illicit thrill that Aquin described in Prochain épisode: “the purifying euphoria of fanaticism.”
In the wrong hands, a transformation this extreme might seem unbelievable, no matter how rooted in the historical record. Fortunately, Denis has found a brooding young actor, Anthony Therrien, who lends nuance to every step of Jean’s emotional and psychological journey. The film also does an excellent job of grounding his story in the rich sights and sounds of the city that defines him. We are plunged into a world of smoky casse-croûtes and shadow-dappled churches, a world that smells of factory smoke and viande fumée. We watch the sun rise on the elegant slopes of Mont Royal and set on the laundry-strewn courtyards of East Montreal slums. Historical films in Canada too often devolve into costume dramas; they aim for the pomp and circumstance of Downton Abbey but end up with the stilted formality of a Heritage Minute. In Corbo, the settings feel lived-in, organic and real, and this makes the characters’ experiences feel real as well.
CANADA WAS A COUNTRY founded on “peace, order and good government,” the three central principles of its Constitution Act of 1867. The sturdiness of the third pillar is a matter of interpretation and debate, but few would disagree that the first two have been almost shockingly resilient throughout our history. Even amid the dramatic upheavals of the sixties, we were largely spared the violence and disorder that consumed other western nations, especially our neighbour to the south. Where countless American artists spent the decade dramatizing riots, demonstrations and assassinations, our most iconic books and movies from the period looked inward, depicting an individual’s internal transformation rather than a society in flux. When the characters in Alice Munro’s Dance of the Happy Shades or Allan King’s A Married Couple stare outside their windows, the tranquil streets that meet their gaze confirm the image of Canada as a kind of Switzerland of the Americas: a country with its own modest quotient of human drama, yet hardly a breeding ground for world-historic change.
The FLQ crisis shattered this pristine veneer; it’s an explosive subject that has given some of our most talented writers and filmmakers the chance to broaden their aesthetic palette and trace the cracks within our bilingual, multicultural society. Prochain épisode is a fever dream of a novel, in which the cell-bound narrator’s desperate stream-of-consciousness starts to blur with Hubert Aquin’s own experiences as a separatist militant. Aquin began the novel while imprisoned on a gun charge and, like Norman Mailer in The Armies of the Night, he has written himself into history. Michel Brault’s Les Ordres (1974) is an equally audacious drama, a documentary-style reenactment of the incarceration of innocent civilians during the 1970 October Crisis. This work of Quebec cinéma vérité recreates the definitive moment in the FLQ’s years of terror. In more recent years, Louis Hamelin’s October 1970 has offered a sprawling, wildly imaginative portrait of the FLQ’s leaders and associates in the years before and after the October Crisis. Published in 2010 and translated into English in 2013, the novel offers a fictional challenge to the official version of events—and a sterling example of the way this violent material continues to inspire formally adventurous works of art.
Though its story unfolds on a more modest and intimate scale than its predecessors, Corbo is a rich addition to this artistic tradition, using Jean’s experiences within the political and educational institutions of Quebec to achieve a panoramic perspective on a changing society. Out of the heated dinner table conversations between Jean, his parents and his Italian grandfather, Denis evokes the tensions within the province’s immigrant communities at a time of Quebec nationalism; we watch the second generation’s pathological need to conform inspire the third generation’s pathological need to rebel. Out of Mathieu’s rants on the role of violence in the separatist struggle, Denis gives voice to the same angry delusions that would eventually spiral out of control during the October Crisis.
Corbo is also a notable addition to a recent flurry of international books and movies about the revolutionary move- ments of the sixties and seventies. Germany’s Red Army Faction was the subject of the compelling 2008 docudrama The Baader Meinhof Complex. Italy’s Beretta-packing Red Brigades have made prominent cameos in The Best of Youth (2003), a cinematic epic from director Marco Tullio Giordana; Elena Ferrante’s acclaimed novel Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, translated into English in fall 2014; and the National Book Award-nominated The Flamethrowers (2013), in which American novelist Rachel Kushner depicts the group’s head-line-grabbing kidnappings. Meanwhile, French filmmaker Olivier Assayas has been exploring the world of leftist militants in films such as Carlos (2010), an electrifying portrait of Marxist terrorist Carlos the Jackal, and Something in the Air (2012), an autobiographical account of his own teenage experiences on the post-1968 left.
These books and movies display styles and sensibilities as diverse as their countries of origin. Where some adopt an austere documentary aesthetic, others mirror Corbo with their lush, psychologically expressive storytelling. But like the militant groups on which they focus, they are united by similar themes and archetypes. Nearly all of these works follow the coming of age narrative that we find in Corbo, using a young person’s entry into a revolutionary movement to chart its descent into nihilism and despair. They also make the controversial, yet convincing, assertion that the era’s baby-faced radicals were victims of circumstance, unable to transcend the sharp polarities within their cultural environments. With the world neatly divided according to the ideological tenets of the Cold War, youthful arrogance and political conviction could merge into a form of religious fundamentalism, intolerant to reason, compromise and, ultimately, the sanctity of human life. Like Jean Corbo and the FLQ before them, the young disciples of the Baader-Meinhof gang, the Red Brigades and other would-be revolutionary groups would eventually litter jail cells and cemeteries around the world.
WHAT ACCOUNTS FOR the fascination with these desperate youths? Perhaps it’s driven by fortieth-anniversary nostalgia and the sense that the social and economic dislocations of the past decade are mirrored in the unrest of the sixties and seventies. But there’s another, even more significant, force propelling these stories, the same creative impulse found in FLQ dramas since the time of Hubert Aquin: they offer their creators an opportunity to dispute history’s myths, and to place an authorial imprint on stories that have shaped the collective imagination of their countrymen. Corbo is no exception to this trend; though Denis based his script on extensive historical research, he channels Jean’s story through the lens of his own thematic and aesthetic concerns. In place of the hand-held camerawork and psychedelic rock that have become a stylistic short- hand for life in the sixties, he gives us meticulous, shadow-streaked compositions and lashings of soulful jazz. He reminds us that Woodstock hadn’t happened when the FLQ began to plant its bombs, and that crew cuts and gramophones concealed a fierce yearning for social change. This classical, almost noir-inflected film language reworks the dramatic clichés that have defined Hollywood representations of the 1960s. It also defies the aesthetic trends that have defined politically engaged filmmaking as far back as The Battle of Algiers. Denis shows that gritty cinéma vérité isn’t the only way to lend urgency and immediacy to a story from the past.
By the time the final credits begin to roll, Corbo has affirmed Louis Hamelin’s observation that an imagined story can often surpass the documentary record, and carve its signature into our collective memory. Jean’s political awakening is rendered with such cinematic precision that the film will surely achieve that sense of permanence and authenticity in the minds of many viewers, especially those who are encountering his story for the first time. Like the poet Gaston Miron, whose work about Jean Corbo appears at the end of the film, Denis uses the life of this angst-ridden adolescent to evoke “the subterranean wind” that was blowing across Quebec in the 1960s, and to draw our gaze towards the storm clouds gathering on the horizon. Jean’s tragic fate becomes a symbol of a country about to erupt, a warning that the Quiet Revolution might not be so quiet after all.