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#HotDocs22 Review: Bernie Langille Wants to Know What Happened to Bernie Langille

April 29, 2022

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

The 2022 Hot Docs Film Festival runs from April 28th to May 8th in Toronto, more information on tickets and showtimes can be found right here.

Back in 2018, filmmaker Jackie Torrens premiered her short film Bernie Langille Wants to Know Who Killed Bernie Langille at Hot Docs, using miniatures to explore a mysterious death that has haunted a Nova Scotia family for decades. I wrote at the time that it could easily lead to a longer project in the future, and now Torrens has returned with the feature film version, Bernie Langille Wants to Know What Happened to Bernie Langille, which builds upon the promise of the short and is every bit as intriguing.

For pretty much all his life, Bernie Langille has been hearing about the strange death of his grandfather and namesake in 1968. The elder Langille, a military electrician in Halifax, had returned home late from a party one winter night, and was found the next morning with his head in a pool of blood. There was more blood at the bottom of the basement stairs, suggesting that he fell down and hit his head sometime in the night, and he was pronounced dead at the hospital shortly after. But was it a mere accidental fall, or something more sinister, like murder, that led to his death?

This question has plagued the family for over fifty years, spurred by a series of mysterious events surrounding his death. There was the military doctor who beat him on the hospital bed, the lag in time before he was airlifted to another hospital for a crucial procedure, and the ambulance he was travelling in being stopped on the train tracks in the path of an oncoming train. This has caused various relatives to question what really happened, and if his life could have been saved, including an uncle who has obsessed over the details to the point of being convinced of a larger conspiracy.

In adapting her short to feature length, Torrens retains the same core structure of her earlier film. An interview with the younger Langille serves as the main through-line, with Torrens and her production team recreating the crime scene and other past events through meticulously crafted miniatures. These miniatures add an interesting dimension to the film, allowing Langille to peer into the past and diffuse some of the power that it has over him, despite being born fifteen years after his grandfather’s death.

As he reconnects with family members and friends who all have different theories, and seeks out old medical records, Bernie encounters conflicting stories and some uncomfortable realizations about his grandfather. Yes, he is after a concrete answer about his death, but the main thing that he is seeking is enough closure to finally be able put this story to rest.

While the film unfolds as a sort of murder mystery, that occasionally gets into the weeds of conspiracy thriller, at heart this is a powerful story about intergenerational trauma and how the impact of big family events can continue to linger and ripple down through generations. It’s a fascinating and surprisingly moving story that is inventively told.

Screenings:

Saturday, April 30th – 8:30 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 4

Thursday, May 5th – 1:00 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 3

The film is also available to stream across Canada for five days starting on May 1st at 9:00 AM.

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