By Gabrielle Marceau
Maria (Sara Montpetit) is the eldest daughter of a settler family living in rural Québec after the turn of the century, and like many literary heroines, she is trying to determine what kind of life she wants to lead— which, in the strictures of the era, means which suitor to marry. She has her choice between a restless adventurer; an industrialist making his fortune in America; and her neighbour, a man who can give her only what she already knows. She takes her time, aware that this is her last choice: her father has uprooted the family over and over, moving her mother farther towards back-breaking toil and isolation in the woods. Sébastien Pilote’s previous film, The Fireflies Are Gone (2018), was also about a young woman choosing her future, but Maria’s options are limited to the point of being illusory. She’s in essentially every scene, but almost always silent: her head demurely dipped, her cheeks perpetually rosy. She is dutiful, it seems, even in thought.
Based on Louis Hémon’s enduringly popular novel (this is its fourth film adaptation), Pilote’s Maria Chapdelaine is a decidedly nostalgic vision of settler life in Québec: the characters watch as the seasons shift, but they themselves don’t change, remaining as predictable as that annual cycle. Maria isn’t really the story’s heroine: she embodies the values and desires of those around her rather than pursuing her own. Montpetit plays her with warmth and presence, but doesn’t communicate any kind of interior life, at least not beyond the humble perseverance that Pilote sees as the spirit of a “nation.”