Few professions feel so fraught with peril as that of the miner. Each trip into the depths of the planet brings with it fears of explosions and collapses and men trapped for days without food or water. Souterrain (Underground), the new film from Sophie Dupuis, explores these fears with by following a group of miners in the lead up to an explosion in their mine.
Joakim Robillard stars as Maxime, a hot-headed young man with a huge tip on his shoulder who works on the rescue team at the mine. Robillard is excellent in the role, clearly carrying the baggage around and furious at the world. Maxime is the first one to say that the rescue team should break safety protocols if it means there’s a chance of saving more people, and you can’t quite tell if he’s committed to saving lives or maybe has a death wish himself.
It’s through his relationship with his friend Julien (Théodore Pellerin), a man left with a serious brain injury and aphasia after some past calamity that you really get to know Maxime. It becomes clear that the two are intrinsically connected, but nothing about either man really sinks in until that connection is made clear. Pellerin is also excellent to watch here. So often a character with a condition like aphasia would be played for laughs, but Pellerin conveys the outright frustration that it must feel like to have your brain constantly betraying you.
The story begins in media res with Maxime and his rescue team being deployed after an explosion, before jumping back in time to follow him and the other miners in the lead to this accident. The following scenes make clear the relationships between the various characters and build tension as you come to know and care for each of them.
One of my favourite things about this movie is how the drama of the explosion plays out. If this were a Hollywood blockbuster, there’d be dramatic cinematography of men on radios barking orders at other men running headfirst into fiery caverns. This would, of course, be entirely unrealistic, which is why it’s refreshing that the film doesn’t do that. Instead, the team gets to work in the most un-dramatic of fashions: they work fast, but efficiently, safely, and methodically to save who they can. Each of them is impacted, but their each able to keep their emotions under control and get the job done.
Dupuis, a native of the Val-d’Or region, clearly has reverence for these men and women who toil away underground, and that shows. A nuanced portrayal of real, human characters; both dramatic and poignant, Souterrain is one of the best Canadian films of the year.
Underground / Souterrain is streaming as part of the Whistler Film Festival until December 31st.