Film review: ‘Corbo’ directed and written by Mathieu Denis
Terrorism from an unfamiliar perspective.
This is a film about the development of a young terrorist, as he moves from a vaguely angry and confused youth, to an idealistic activist, to a radical willing to commit deadly violence. However, it is in a different context, and representing a different ideology, than most accounts of terrorism we’ve heard in recent years. It is set in Quebec in the mid-1960s, and involves the early days of that province’s separatist movement. Still, the essentials are all too similar to current headlines.
For most of the world, and even much of Canada, these matters (if they are remembered at all) began in 1970, during what became known as the October Crisis. Following a series of bombings, the FLQ, a radical separatist organisation, kidnaped a British diplomat and a Canadian cabinet minister, eventually killing the latter. The Canadian Prime Minister responded by invoking the still-controversial War Measures Act, emergency legislation which expanded police powers and suspended civil rights.
This story begins in 1966, or what will be seen by Canadians as four years before the looming and still contentious events of 1970.
The opening onscreen text briefly establishes the situation in Quebec at the time, and the essential reasons for popular unrest. While 80% of the province is French-speaking, financial and government business – in fact, anything of real significance – is conducted in English and dominated by English-speaking Canadians. Francophones are limited to less influential positions. Feeling like servants in their own home, some Quebecois worked for political change through official channels, while others, frustrated by the lack of progress, turned to more radical approaches.
The film follows Jean Corbo (Anthony Therrien), a sixteen year old boy, through the stages of political awakening and radicalisation. As a Francophone, Jean sees his prospects as limited in spite of his father’s success as an attorney and his attendance at a prestigious school; and as a person of Italian descent, he is belittled by his schoolmates and regarded as a non-French outsider. His free-floating resentment eventually finds a target when he accidentally encounters a small group of young separatists, and begins to read their literature and to follow political events in the news. Eventually he re-connects with the young radicals who had caught his attention, and begins attending underground meetings.
Jean is drawn to the movement, initially, because it fills gaps in his life. It offers him a feeling of belonging which was lacking at home and at school. It gives him a focus for his anger and alienation, a sense of purpose, and an explanation for the various forms of injustice and bigotry that he seems to encounter everywhere. It even gives him a way to break the ice with girls. His involvement with the FLQ has an innocent quality to it, partly because of his youth and inexperience, which the film makes touchingly apparent, and partly because of the natural wish for acceptance and usefulness which drives his early association with the group.
Although Jean is young and his motives for involvement in the FLQ are mixed and often more personal than political, the movie does not dismiss his fledgling radicalism as mere juvenile angst. There are genuine inequities in place, and Jean’s intentions are at least partly sincere. He is, at first, less concerned with separatism than with social equality, which is included in the FLQ’s mandate and makes their work seem noble to Jean.
Jean is introduced to criminal acts very gradually and through fairly benign misdemeanours, such as leaving anti-government literature in public places and painting graffiti on walls. He is excited to be included in these activities, which do not yet include violence, and enjoys the camaraderie of shared risk. The necessity of violence to the movement is constantly spoken and written of, but so far only in a theoretical way. Jean happily participates when asked to help transport some crates, which he only later learns contain explosives.
The movie makes Jean’s gradual initiation the focus, making the story personal even when political activism is the real theme. Jean maintains his position as an ordinary schoolboy, finding his position at school easier to tolerate due to the self-consequence his new activities give him. At the same time, relations with his family deteriorate, as their values become more and more foreign to him.
Months later, Jean finally participates in his first serious crime, when he assists in leaving a bomb in an anti-union factory. The FLQ members divide over the wisdom of the bombing. There is further dissent in the group when the bomb kills an old woman who was unexpectedly present. In a nicely nuanced scene, they finally fall in line under a charismatic leader, whose obsession with the need for violent action is ominous, but who is skilled at manipulating the group.
Jean, meanwhile, has become fully engrossed in revolutionary writings which maintain that violence is essential to a successful uprising by any people who have been oppressed or colonised, and he throws himself into the paramilitary aspects of the FLQ wholeheartedly. He becomes indifferent to any purely political efforts being made to affect change; even such supposed advances as the election of separatist MPs leave him cold.
The film slyly inserts references, usually in the form of background news bulletins, to the negative and bigoted side of separatism, something which is to become a problem years later, but which goes unnoticed by Jean and by his confederates. The lives of those outside their organisation become increasingly meaningless to them.
The crisis in Jean’s group comes when the leader insists on a second and larger bombing. This time, one member quits the group, unable to reconcile himself to further acts of violence. Jean also begins to have second thoughts, but attachment to the group overcomes his doubts. He works to strengthen his resolve, wishing to retain his credibility with his radical friends, and volunteers to plant the explosive.
Jean’s older brother has just begun to suspect Jean’s affiliation when the bombing efforts goes horribly wrong, and Jean’s affiliations are revealed. As in so many cases of young, radicalised terrorists, his family were completely unaware of his beliefs or his activities.
A story of radicalisation and politically motivated terrorism takes on an interesting perspective when the perpetrator is not only someone outside the familiar categories of terrorist populations, but whose motives can be easily sympathised with by most western viewers. Even without approving of his decisions, it is easy to understand how someone like Jean could be attracted to such a movement, and eventually take on its more extreme opinions.
Another film which provides an unusual take on terrorist violence is the intriguing 2006 indie film by writer/director Julia Loktev, Day Night Day Night. As we watch the painstaking preparations for a bombing by a young woman in an unnamed American city, the nationality, group affiliations, and even motive of the prospective terrorist remain unknown. We are left to solve the mystery of her identity and purpose based on the minor details of the film as they are revealed – or to allow our own assumptions to fill in the blanks.