Dir: Bernard Emond. Canada. 2003. 101mins

Inexplicable tragedy prompts a soul-searching quest for the meaning of life in 8.17pm Darling Street, a modestly effective but resolutely glum second feature from writer-director Bernard Emond whose debut, La Femme Qui Boit also screened in Critics' Week in 2001. Addressing the guilt of those who survive tragedy and the last hours of those who perish by it, the film delves into fate and forgiveness as it follows a reformed alcoholic on his path to enlightenment. An intelligent, small-scale work with strong resonance in a post-September 11 world, its theatrical potential outside Canada is marginal. It will secure a regular berth on the festival circuit and help to build Emond's profile among discerning international cineastes.

Over-reliant on the use of voiceover narration, the film tells the story of Gerard (Picard), a scruffy former journalist who has been clean and sober for six months. Returning from a visit to one of his ex-wives, he stops to tie his shoelace and is delayed enough that he is involved in a minor car accident.

It is 8.17pm. When he returns home to Darling Street, he finds that the entire apartment block where he lived has been raised to the ground by an explosion. Six people are dead and he is left with the all-consuming mystery of why fate has chosen to spare him and take the life of a sweet young child.

Struggling to make sense of what really happened, he starts to investigate the lives of the people who were his neighbours. Officials are reluctant to help as he was once renowned for intruding on the grief of others for his news stories.

Piecing together their final moments, he is also able to reflect on some of his own failings and frailties, returning to the neighbourhood in which he grew up and finding mutual support in a fragile friendship with waitress Angela (Tremblay). There is also the constant pressure to taste the forbidden alcohol that once proved such a soothing balm to his many anxieties. 'There's nothing like a scotch to lighten the load,' he longingly remarks.

Taking his starting point as random lives struck by tragedy, Emond reveals some affinities with the cinema of Atom Egoyan. His documentary background allows him to create an authentic sense of place, character and community that calls to mind some of the Marseilles films of Robert Guediguian. Those are demanding comparisons for a film that is not in that league but proves to be far more watchable and accessible on a purely human level than many of the titles at this year's festival. If Emond can add a little more humour to his palate and pace to his storytelling, he may yet create a film that can make an emotional connection with a wider audience.

Prod co: Acpav
Int'l sales:
Christal Films
Bernadette Payeur
Jean-Pierre St Louis
Prod des:
Diane Gauthier
Louise Cote
Robert Marcel Lepage
Main cast:
Luc Picard, Guylaine Tremblay, Diane Lavallee, Markita Boies, Micheline Bernard