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Review: The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open

December 13, 2019

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

A chance encounter between two Indigenous women in Vancouver leads to an emotional study of abuse and trauma in The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open, a drama that unfolds almost entirely in real time and explores how hard it can be to help someone who is reluctant to accept support.

Àila (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers) has just left a doctor’s appointment when she encounters Rosie (Violet Nelson) standing barefoot at a bus stop in the rain. Rosie is visibly pregnant and has just run off from her abusive boyfriend, who is still yelling at her from across the street.

Àila asks her if she wants to call the police, but Rosie says no, so instead Àila brings her back to her home, giving her a change of clothes and something to eat. She tries to get her to open up, and they share a few details about what First Nations communities they are from, but Rosie remains closed off and defensive. Àila tries to gently push her in the direction of going to a safe house or a shelter for help, but Rosie expresses her desire to just go back home, which would allow the cycle of abuse to continue.

Directed by Kathleen Hepburn and Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, who also co-wrote the screenplay together based on a real life experience that Tailfeathers had, The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open unfolds with a sense of urgency and is told from an entirely female point of view. Not only are the male characters kept in the background, but men rarely appear onscreen at all, and are only seen fleetingly throughout the film.

Shot on 16mm, the cinematography by Norm Li is undeniably impressive. Aside from the first couple of scenes which introduce these two characters separately, the majority of the film unfolds in one single take, with the camera never stopping once after both women meet each other. This adds a sense of both immediacy and intimacy to the proceedings, with the camera following them in and out of cabs and even into the bathroom. It’s a claustrophobic approach, heightening the feeling that there is no real way out for these characters.

One of the biggest themes of The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open is how hard it is to help someone who doesn’t want to be helped. Because of this, the film is almost uncompromisingly bleak, but if the story had tried to be inspiring or offer a pat happy ending, it likely would have rang false. The two leads carry the film with a pair of moving performances, made all the more impressive by the single take approach, which forced them to stay in character for long stretches of time. The result is an emotional and technically impressive Canadian drama that is as timely as it is deeply sad.

The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open is now playing in limited release at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto.

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