There are several monsters who roam about in Henri Pardo’s Kanaval and most of them are not on the masks of the revellers at Haiti’s version of Carnival. Avoiding these menacing creatures becomes a challenge for Rico (Rayan Dieudonné), when he is forced to abruptly leave his island home for a small rural town in Quebec.
After making a splash with his wonderful 2021 documentary Dear Jackie, Canadian filmmaker Pardo returns with an ambitious feature debut that explores migration and abandonment. Told from the perspective of Rico, a curious young boy, Kanaval weaves together reality and mysticism to create a stirring tale. One where politics and trauma pull a mother and son apart when they need each other the most.
Taking place over the course of a year in 1975, the film begins on the night of the annual Kanaval celebrations when Rico defies his mother’s orders to stay home and ventures out to experience the festivities. Rico assumes her warnings that “we don’t know who is whom tonight!” are related to the masked individuals on the street. However, it becomes apparent that his mother Erzuile (Penande Estime), a pregnant schoolteacher who is accused of teaching communist propaganda, is referring to the simmering political climate that is about to boil over. A fact Rico is awakened to upon returning home and finding military officials torturing his mother.
Rescued by his uncle (Jean Jean), Rico makes his way to Chicago where he is eventually reunited with his Erzuile. Reeling from the events, his mother recoils emotionally and leaves Rico and his uncle to regularly turn up the television volume to drown out the wails of pain emitting from her room. When his uncle returns to Haiti to help others flee, the pair find themselves migrating to Quebec and living with a childless older couple, Albert (Martin Dubreuil) and Cécile (Claire Jacques).
Unable to talk about her trauma, especially with Rico, Erzuile puts all of her efforts into find a job teaching in this new land, leaving Albert and Cécile to care for her son during the day. Instantly smitten with Rico, the couple treat him as if he was their own, taking him snowmobiling and teaching him about life on the farm. While there are locals like Charles (Rykko Bellemare), an indigenous man who works on the couple’s farm, that warmly welcome the boy, there are some, like the dangerous Gabouri (Sylvain Massé), who refuse to see past Rico’s Black skin.
As Rico spends more time in this new and potentially dangerous “alien land,” without the protection of his mother, Padro’s film captures the ways the boy uses his imagination and Haitian lore to fill the growing chasm between him and Erzuile. In the film’s most riveting moments, Rico transports himself to a version of Haiti where his mother is a fierce warrior, speaks with a spirit in a Quebec Forest, and deals with a horn-headed version of his worst fears and impulses. Throughout these vibrant and, at times, other worldly sequences, one is acutely aware of how the feeling of being forgotten is impacting Rico’s mental state.
It is through the young lad’s imagination that Kanaval also makes some pointed commentary about the racial hardships people of colour experience in predominantly white communities. Padro draws several parallels to the outsider status that Rico and Charles are unofficially saddled with and the constant sense of danger that comes with it.
While there is plenty to admire and unpack in Pardo’s film, including how it navigates that which is often left unsaid between mother and son, where it stumbles somewhat is in a subplot involving Albert and Garbouri. Pardo makes it clear that despite his best intensions, the stuttering Albert may not be the clean-cut hero Rico sees him as. He may not be a monster in the boy’s eyes, but he is more than willing to hang out with them. This not only causes the plot to drive into muddy terrain, but it leads Rico to make several reckless choices that never feel completely plausible.
Kanaval may not land all of the sprawling ideas it has flying in the air, but there is plenty to appreciate here. Anchored by Rayan Dieudonné’s moving wide-eyed performance, Pardo crafts an engaging film wrapped in mysticism and hope. Kanaval understands that the road that Rico and Erzuile find themselves on is one filled with uncertainty. However, the challenges are far more manageable when they are tackling them together.
Kanaval had its World Premiere as part of TIFF 2023. Head here for coverage from this year’s festival.