Notions of Nationality
WARNING: While I will do my best to avoid major spoilers this series of posts is an in depth examination of the film so it will be discussed at length. Reading about the film in distinct sections is not the same as seeing it clearly but forewarned is forearmed.
The first thing Léolo (Maxime Collin) tells you about is the story of how he believes he came to be conceived. In a way it’s his creation myth, the only explanation, however illogical, that he can come up with for why he feels so different than the rest of his family.
Naturally, with one feeling so estranged from one’s family can lead to a sense that they come from some other country. With Léolo having grown up in the midst of his family, and never having moved, the only viable option that remains in his mind is that he himself is from some other nation; somehow, some way.
This notion struck me not only because this film is French-Canadian, and the national identity of its populous has always been nebulous as a whole – as evidenced by two tight independence referenda in the ’90s and political jockeying for another. The notion was also likely to strike me personally for an obvious reason. I am neither French nor Canadian I will not get too cute about what Léolo’s desire to be Italian says about the Quebecois.
However, it’s not coincidental that that Léo’s tale of a randy Italian tomato-picker, an accident wherein his mother stumbles upon the most unlikely tomato imaginable makes him Italian in his mind, and thus, a countryman of Bianca, his great unrequited love.
Due to the fact that his belief is that an anonymous Italian is unintentionally his father and not the man he shares a house with, he also insists on being called Léolo Lozone rather than Léo Lauzon. He is rarely taken seriously in this request.
“Italy is too beautiful to belong only to the Italians” he says when talking about Italy and Bianca, whom to him is the country personified. This is portion wherein I feel some more identification. I am a dual citizen of the United States and Brazil. I think being a first generation American has made me very curious about the world and made me want to experience other cultures, at least vicariously, not only as an escape (though in my younger years it definitely was) but also for my own edification.
Léo’s world is a one of very small and dark corners; it’s his apartment, his tenement building, diving in the river, collecting papers. His neighborhood, in short, to a lesser extent Montréal as a whole. He is incessantly surrounded by things he wants to be freed of it’s not a wonder that a country he has never been to, landscapes he is imagining but may have never seen represented call out to him as a safe haven. In many ways, with a much different backdrop to grow up against I had that same longing for escapism in my adolescence. Sure, most adolescents do, but it’s the manifestation of such in this particular way that makes it a parallel.
One of the great and subtle touches of this film is how it uses his preferred name to put a bittersweet closing note on the relationship arc of Léolo and his mother (Ginette Reno). There are small moments when he shows his affection towards his mother. He writes of his true feelings with greater fervor than he shows her in real life. Though at times she was unable to understand all that went through her kids’ heads, and may have passively fought him on his desired name, at the end she calls him “Léolo” seeking to bring him back to consciousness. Whatever he calls himself she just wants him to stay. Léolo may have drifted off to a purgatory – how literally one should interpret closing events in the tale is debatable – what’s inarguable its that: because he gave up on his notion of heaven and gave up the will to fight, even with the supplications of his mother beckoning him back, he was lost.
However, the way this story unravels one would hear all he thought, hoped for, and feared.
This post is the second part of a series. Read part one here, stay tuned for part three.