The second feature by “Momentum” director Stephen S. Campanelli is a heart-rending tale of passion and survival. Based on the novel by Richard Wagamese, the film tells the story of Saul, a young Ojibwe in Canada who proves himself a prodigy in the hockey rink. From an early age, Saul is plunged unwillingly into a world in which he never belongs and never fits in – except when he’s out on the ice.
“Indian Horse” is a haunting tale tinged by a pervasive sadness. Told in three acts, it covers events in Saul’s life from the late 1950s through the 1970s. The three actors who portray Saul – Sladen Peltier at 6, Forrest Goodluck at 15, and Ajuawak Kapashesit at 22 – present a seamless transition between the acts.
As a child, Saul and his older brother are taken by canoe up the Winnipeg River by their parents and grandmother, who are trying to protect the children from the authorities. “Indian Horse” covers the bleak chapter in Canadian history in which indigenous youth were forcibly separated from their families and suffered extreme abuse at residential Christian schools. There, they were taught to deny their own culture and heritage. Tragic events unfold, and Saul becomes the ward of just such a school.
In the early morning hours, Saul cleans the school’s makeshift hockey rink where the older boys play. Fascinated by the sport, he practices in secret when no one is around. He catches the attention of the friendly Father Gaston (Michiel Huisman). Under the guidance of Gaston and, later, his adoptive father, who manages a Native hockey team, Saul becomes a star player.
But make no mistake. “Indian Horse” is no rags-to-riches story of a rise to fame and glory. The focus here is on the lingering effects of trauma, the adult Saul’s battle with alcoholism, and the lifelong disparagement he experiences as a Native, even in the rink. In that arena, spectators taunt him by throwing plastic toy Indians at him, and fights routinely erupt between the Native youth and racist white players.
Most of Campanelli’s career has been spent behind the camera. A sought-after Steadicam operator (one of the first to use the technology, in fact), he worked on numerous productions for Clint Eastwood, who executive produced Indian Horse. But the credit for the film’s shimmering and melancholic visual feel goes to cinematographer Yves Bélanger. In all of its technical aspects, Indian Horse is a gorgeous film.
The only problematic aspect is a late revelation about Father Gaston that, while it doesn’t detract from the narrative, feels unnecessary. The narration by an older, off-screen Saul (voiced by Wayne Baker) doesn’t delve much into the character’s feelings about the late turn of events, either. But this is not too troubling, as Saul’s reticence suits his self-protective nature. All he really he has to hold on to is himself
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