The seventh art in English-speaking Canada is not limited only to David Cronenberg, Atom Egoyan and Guy Maddin. There’s also Clement Virgo, who has been on his merry way for three decades. With Brother (LP), he has just signed his best career film.
Set in the 1990s in the Scarborough neighborhood of Toronto, the feature film follows the fate of two brothers, sons of immigrants from the Caribbean. The eldest Francis (Aaron Pierre) dreams of making a living from his music and is practically a replacement father figure for the youngest Michael (Lamar Johnson). But nothing is simple in this environment marked by violence, poverty and racism. Especially since tragedy struck the family, leaving mom (Marsha Stephanie Blake) upside down.
The magnificent first scene quickly sets the tone for the film. The brothers prepare to climb an electricity pylon. An almost insurmountable task which becomes the metaphor of their existence. One mistake and it’s certain death. Except that together, hand in hand, nothing is impossible.
The story adapted from the novel by Canadian author David Chariandy maintains this fragile balance by constantly oscillating between the brutality of everyday life and the sensitivity of this community that holds itself tight, of these beings who aspire to better. A mixture of strong emotions which is notably increased tenfold by the invaluable contribution of music, a life-saving salvation for the duo. The rich soundtrack is seated in the moving cover of Ne me quitte pas, by Jacques Brel, by Nina Simone.
Death looms on the horizon and it leads to unhealed mourning. One way of expressing this rout cinematically is by fragmenting time, by multiplying the ellipses between yesterday and today. A little more and the ghosts mingle with the living, as in the documentary essay This House, by director Miryam Charles. A complex process which remains clear thanks to its impeccable editing and which allows better access to the psychology of the characters.
These are performed by amazing actors. The tandem formed by Lamar Johnson (The Hate U Give) and Aaron Pierre (Old) is working at full speed. The first facilitates the viewer’s empathy and identification, while the second reveals the soul and heart of the project. When they are brought together on screen, it is to better explore all the subtleties of family, identity and masculinity. The pair benefit from the contribution of veteran Marsha Stephanie Blake (When They See Us) and Kiana Madeira (Fear Street), perfect in attentive love.
Then there is the elegantly stylized direction of Clement Virgo (Rude), who signs his return to the cinema after his forgettable Poor Boy’s Game in 2007. His mastered direction of an uncommon vigor makes good use of the sumptuous photography of Guy Godfree (Maudie), ideal for electrifying this altogether classic, predictable and somewhat long initiation story, which may seem too written and which sometimes preaches by melodramatic excess.
No trace of misery, fortunately. The whole is rather forged in nuance, in these tones of gray which escape from the usual black and white, and which achieve a form of universality despite some maddening outbursts which can only recall the assassination of George Floyd.
Noted at the Toronto Film Festival and having obtained no less than 14 selections at the Canadian Screen Awards, Brother does not lack power, evoking nothing less than the first efforts of Spike Lee and the grandiose Moonlight, by Barry Jenkins.