By Andrea Thompson
“The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open” is a long title for a film that seems so simplistic on its face. It consists mostly of a series of conversations, none of which can be called witty or especially explanatory. It’s a good thing, since “The Body Remembers” isn’t trying to be. And in a market full of examples of witty banter, easily quotable quips, such an approach feels novel, even when it isn’t.
The film also uses its relatively toned-down approach to accomplish a complex goal, that of showing the solidarity, then the very real friendship, that develops between two women despite their drastically different situations and backgrounds. Rosie (Violet Nelson) and Áila (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, who co-wrote and co-directed) are Canadian and Indigenous, yet probably wouldn’t have met if it weren’t for a chance encounter.
The blue-haired Rosie is short, what the media generally calls plus size, darker skinned, and impoverished. From the moment we meet her, she oozes sadness and pain. During the multiple instances where she provides help to others, whether it’s people on the bus, or the others with whom she shares the depressing apartment she calls home, it’s hard not to wonder if her actions are the result of real kindness, or a conditioning that’s caused her to always put others first.
Whatever the case, she demands compassion rather than pity, a fact which quickly becomes apparent once her path intersects with Áila, who comforts and aids Rosie after she discovers her barefoot and beaten in the street one rainy day. Áila is tall, thin, light-skinned, and oozes class and status. When she leads Rosie back to her comfortable abode, it’s a far cry from Rosie’s living space.
Soon after, we discover Rosie is pregnant, and that she was beaten by the abusive boyfriend who was screaming at her off-screen earlier. She is also difficult to like, cursing and insulting Áila multiple times as she’s trying to help, even stealing a bottle of pills from her medicine cabinet so she can sell it to a dealer. Yet “The Body Remembers” never loses its compassion for Rosie,quietly but urgently reminding us that her behavior is a result of her circumstances.
Yet for all their differences, the two of them are also able to casually reference their commonalities while the film emphasizes the wide gulf between their opportunities, and thus, their situations. In other words? Yes, women’s experiences are varied. It’s not always interesting, and the movie’s emphasis on intimacy at all costs means that it can drag at certain points. Unfolding mostly in real time, the camera doesn’t so much film as reveal the layers that are slowly shed as Rosie and Áila allow themselves to be seen by the other.
Rosie’s vulnerability is also the most heartbreaking, increasing despite her best efforts, especially when Áila is finally able to persuade Rosie to accompany her to a women’s shelter in the hopes that Rosie will choose to leave her abusive boyfriend. As she recounts various incidents of violence while also defending her partner, it’s the kind of realism that’s as horrifying as it is frustrating. It’s difficult not to get invested, or even angry with Rosie as she defends the partner responsible for mistreating her so cruelly.
And for its empathy, “The Body Remembers” also refuses to give us a feel-good ending. Things might improve someday, but the film wants to show us the state of things today, and it’s not good. It’s also, as the film states, normal. Debuting at the Berlin Film Festival earlier this year, the film had its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, and has been acquired by ARRAY, the film collective founded by filmmaker and all-around goddess Ava DuVernay, with a release planned for later this fall. A film starring and co-directed by Indigenous women shouldn’t be rare, but hopefully this acquisition will allow “The Body Remembers” to be seen by a wider audience that will become a new norm in itself.