'Richelieu' Tells a Story of Workplace Abuse Through the Eyes of a Translator [Fantasia Fest]

A man and woman stare at each other
Ariane Castellanos as ARIANE; Marc-André Grondin as STEPHANE

Richelieu (known also as Temporaries) paints an ugly picture of Canadian corporate machinery and the migrant workers who get crushed in the gears. Filmed in 4:3 and from the first-person perspective of Ariane (Ariane Castellanos), a French-to-Spanish translator, and Manuel (Nelson Coronado), a Guatemalan seasonal worker, the storytelling produces an engrossing real-time feeling of urgency and immediacy. The movie is the feature-length directorial debut for director and writer Pier-Philippe Chevigny, with a script in both French and Spanish.

Ariane tries to pick up the pieces of her life after a breakup. She takes a job as translator and liaison between the factory boss, Stéphane (Marc-André Grondin) and the Guatemalan seasonal workers who do back breaking work as corn huskers for little pay. Their meager salary shrinks even further since they must pay union dues despite not being able to join the union, a clever loophole that Stéphane knows leaves these men vulnerable to workplace abuse. They don't know their rights, and if they question the rules, there are plenty of workers lining up for this opportunity.

A man in the foreground stares down a woman
Marc-André Grondin as STEPHANE
Ariane tries to remain neutral and keep her head down. After all, she has her own problems and debt to consider. But as Stéphane's abuses compound and she gets to know the workers, Ariane finds turning a blind eye increasingly difficult. Complicating the matter further, Ariane has a history with Stéphane, who used to get into trouble with her ex-partner, Pat. On her first day, Ariane muses to her mother that "the bullies from school are now plant bosses."

The camera conveys Ariane's evolution from removed bystander to invested ally. She desperately wants to keep her job and chooses to take on the role of "translator only," even though Stéphane has given her the task of pushing the men to produce more. She interacts with the workers from a distance, often barely unable to make eye contact with them. She's often talking about them, rather than to them, also. The camera focuses on her face, leaving the workers faceless blurs in the background.

Her barriers begin to falter, however, after she sees the men celebrating their shared identity with singing and dancing. She shifts from feeling separate from the men to feeling in alignment with them, reflected in both her actions and the perspective of the camera. In a moment of solidarity, she makes a confession to Manuel that reveals more to the story than we even imagined. Being around these men awakens a longing in her to know part of her own heritage long buried.

A woman translate on behalf of a man
Ariane Castellanos as ARIANE
Ariane Castellanos plays her role with an unhurried, naturalistic style. The other part of the story is gleaned through the perspective of Manuel, a quiet, unassuming, and hardworking man whose story takes a dramatic turn two-thirds of the way through the movie. Nelson Coronado carries this role with appropriate dignity, becoming the vessel that inevitably tips Ariane from neutral to ally.

American audiences may find this movie hard to watch. We are so used to feel-good underdog stories, especially stories about workplace abuse – stories where the abused get vindicated and the unjust must pay for their sins. Consider past award-winning movies like Norma Rae (1979), Erin Brockovich (2000), and North Country (2005). All three end in a blaze of glory and justice restored. On the other hand, Richelieu ends with a tough acknowledgement. Sometimes, the villain gets away with doing wrong. Even if one person's situation improves, that doesn't mean the unjust are punished or have to change their wicked ways. And sometimes the person who stands up doesn't get a thank you. They may even be shunned for the trouble they caused. The wheels of justice turn slowly. Real life doesn't always end in a big win. It's a tougher pill to swallow but makes the story more realistic. At the end of the day, Richelieu is a call to action, not a feel-good story. 

Release info: Screens during Fantasia Fest 2023. Go here for all of my Fantasia 2023 coverage. 

Final score: 3.5 out of 5