Wrenching Middle Eastern drama pulls the curtain back on family history, regional strife
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Cast: Lubna Azabal, Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin, Maxim Gaudette
Take, by way of example, brother and sister Simon and Jeanne Marwan, the lead characters in Denis Villeneuve’s Oscar-nominated French Canadian drama Incendies. One fateful day, the twin thirtysomethings from Montreal are summoned for the reading of their mother Nawal’s will. They’re hardly surprised at the distribution of their mother’s modest estate. (They’ll split it.) They are, however, shocked by the terms of the will. The two are given a pair of envelopes and ordered to deliver them to their “father” and “brother.” As far as the twins know, their father died years ago. And this is the first they’ve heard of another sibling.
What follows is a stunning journey of self-discovery to a Middle East the Marwans have never known. (The film was shot in Jordan, but locations are never specified.) Jeanne and Simon (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin and Maxim Gaudette) are modern Westerners with few ties to either their ethnic or religious heritage. In fact, Simon is so incensed at his dead mother’s “crazy” request, he (initially, anyway) refuses to accompany Jeanne overseas.
Azabal (Paradise Now) inhabits Nawal over the span of several decades—decades in which she comes face-to-face with love, war, student protests, jail, history, you name it. Amid this epic human struggle, our heroine somehow maintains her strength and character (if not, perhaps, her sanity). The scope and sweep of this woman’s journey feels a bit like Gone with the Wind—minus the pretty Hollywood backdrops and inspirational ending, of course. Incendies isn’t all darkness and depression, but it’s got some of the most heartrending scenes you’ve witnessed in ages. Villeneuve shoots them like a master—finding the most emotionally impactful way of presenting a tableau without ever stooping to exploitation. (And this film didn’t win an Oscar because ... ?)
The film, with its mysterious will and hidden backstory, plays out much like an Agatha Christie thriller. In some ways it is—if Agatha Christie had written books about rape, murder and genocide. Hate runs deep in this part of the world. Much of it is religiously based; but as Incendies is quick to point out, when people don’t have God to blame, they can always fall back on ethnicity, family honor or simple geographical proximity as an excuse to kill their neighbors.
Incendies (the title translates as Scorched) is based on the stageplay by Lebanese-born writer/actor/director Wajdi Mouawad. He took as his inspiration the Lebanese Civil War, which raged from 1975 to 1990. It’s hard to tell how much of Mouawad’s original remains in the film’s script, but the story feels both contemporary and mythic, gut-wrenching and thought-provoking. Villeneuve has opened up Mouawad’s apparently intertwined-monologue-heavy original to create something quite visual and not at all stagebound.
At 130 minutes, Incendies is one of those films that likes long, slow tracking shots. But there’s something incredibly compelling about the way Villeneuve composes them: languid, but restless at the same time. It’s as if a director impatient for more plot information is fighting with a camera interested in capturing the smallest visual detail. The tension is palpable. Throw a mopey Radiohead track on top of it all, and you’ve got a film that vividly drives home the melancholy tragedy of its subject matter. The past—good or bad, known or unknown—is always there. It shapes our borders. It molds our characters. It informs our present and predicts our future. Those who forget it are condemned to repeat it. And those who remember it may end up repeating it anyway.