There’s a crucial scene near the midpoint of the Canadian drama, “The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open,” and it brilliantly illuminates the experiential chasm between its two leads. It takes place in a taxicab where Aila (Elle-Maija Tailfeathers, who also wrote and directed the film with Kathleen Hepburn) is accompanying Rosie (Violet Nelson), a woman she has only recently met, to a safe house. Both women are indigenous; but where Aila is willowy and elegantly dressed, Rosie is stocky and awkward, her pregnant body wrapped in mismatched clothing and her hair clotted over the bruises left by her boyfriend’s knuckles.
Out of nowhere, Rosie spins an elaborate fantasy for their driver, telling him that Aila is her sister and they are taking her to rehab. What she’s doing is flipping the script, the one playing in the driver’s head about which of his passengers is likely to be in need of help. It tells us that Rosie is painfully aware of how she looks and what people are thinking about her. And how much it hurts.
Filmed almost entirely in real time, and using a series of long, intimate takes, “The Body Remembers” is about privilege and its lack, motherhood and its absence, race and its legacy. Following the women as closely as a besotted lover, Norm Li’s hand-held camera rarely turns its gaze elsewhere. So when a grizzling baby is brought onto a bus where Rosie is sitting, we see only her softening reaction to it. And when Aila lies on a gynecologist’s table while he installs a contraceptive device, her expression of anxiety and discomfort becomes the story of the scene. Afterward, when she finds Rosie barefoot and bleeding in the rain, the infuriated yells of an unseen attacker fuel the panic of their escape.
By blocking our peripheral vision, Tailfeathers and Hepburn punch up the urgency of their narrative. Natural sounds — like the blast of city clamor that greets Aila upon leaving the doctor’s office — become stand-ins for visual information, while Rosie’s unexpected gusts of foul language signal the bitterness of long-endured humiliations. Yet as she listens to Joni Mitchell’s sad-sweet ballad, “Little Green” (about the daughter Mitchell gave up for adoption), we see not distress, but determination. By the end, we might be asking ourselves who is really helping whom.
The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes.