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Holiday Vérité

A Francophile immerses herself in French and film in Montreal

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Afternoons were free for roaming. Some dashed off to watch more films at the two host cinemas, while others shopped or walked through nearby Vieux Montréal.

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What an underutilized resource Montreal had been for me since I came here with my junior-high French class. How could I have overlooked the fact that the second-largest Francophone city in the world is within driving distance of Boston?

"You aren't exactly the same person in French," Ms. Schulz told us. I agreed, and was glad to knowthat I didn't necessarily have to plan an overseas trip to become that person.

That night we gathered at Cinéma Beaubien for "Nha Fala," starring Fatou N'Diaye, the actress I had spotted. Translated from Portuguese creole as "My Voice," it's about a young woman who leaves Cape Verde for France, falls in love with a music producer, and decides to record a CD. The catch: There's a superstition that if the women in her family dare to sing, they will die. But she decides to flout it. The next morning, I awoke with one of the melodies replaying in my mind.

Strong views, deep emotions

On that cold, rainy Saturday, it was helpful to remember "Nha Fala's" joyous scenes as our conversations turned more serious. We talked with Yamina Bachir-Chouikh, an Algerian film editor whose directorial debut, "Rachida," would be screened that night. She answered questions about the broad themes of the story, in which a young woman and her mother try to escape terrorism in the city by retreating to a small village.

Strong views and deep emotions also surfaced during our discussions the next day. Some of us had viewed a documentary about female genital mutilation - opponents' term for a practice that's traditional in some African cultures. And all of us had watched "Rachida," emerging from the theater dismayed at the violence but moved by the main characters' compassion and courage. (That potent blend earned "Rachida" the grand prize at the end of the 10-day festival, which screened 152 films from 38 countries.)

So much of what I felt I couldn't express in French. But that's why such immersion trips are good motivators, Schulz said. "Trying to bring together your language and your emotions is the essence of it - it's why we do it."

On Sunday our attention turned back to musical comedy when Ms. N'Diaye visited our class. I couldn't help but see parallels between the theme of her film - the courage to find one's voice - and our experience that weekend. At the end, she turns the superstition about dying on its head by staging a fake wake, complete with a pink-butterfly coffin. (In parts of Africa, such creative coffins are common.) Once villagers have gathered to pay their respects, her band members carry her through the streets - sitting up and singing in the winged coffin.

After just four days in the cocoon of immersion, I can't say I felt ready to fly. But at the least, my long-dormant French had been resurrected in Montreal.

The Penobscot School in Rockland, Maine, offers immersion programs in eight languages. This year, the French course held in Montreal cost $425 (including hotel). See www.language learning.org or call (207) 594-1084.

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