Sins that extend to generations
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, May 20, 2011
“Incendies” is a horror movie, a love story and a mystery, each thread of which is so expertly interwoven into the larger narrative that it is impossible to separate any one strand from the other. In the end, the effect of the sinuous, snaking drama — which elegantly traces a timeline stretching from contemporary Quebec to war-torn Lebanon of the 1970s and back — is like a tripwire. It knocks you off your feet and leaves you shaken.
It is no surprise that it was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.
Directed and adapted for the screen by Quebecois filmmaker Denis Villeneuve from Wajdi Mouawad’s play (whose title is often translated as “Scorched”), “Incendies” opens with the reading of a will in the office of Canadian notary Jean Lebel (Remy Girard). “Death is never the end of the story,” says Lebel, who has just dropped a bombshell in the laps of Jeanne and Simon Marwan (Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin and Maxim Gaudette), a pair of 20-something twins whose mother, Nawal (Lubna Azabal), has recently died. In accordance with the terms of Nawal’s will, Jeanne and Simon are given two sealed letters, one to deliver to their father, and another to deliver to their brother, after which they will receive a letter of their own from their mother.
The odd thing is they thought their father was dead and never knew they had a brother.
Their search for the family they never knew will lead them to their mother’s homeland in the Middle East. Although the place names visited in the film are fictionalized, it’s clearly meant to be Lebanon, where playwright Mouawad was born. At first Jeanne goes by herself — Simon wants nothing to do with his mother’s crazy request — but eventually Simon joins his sister, once the web of secrets and shocks that she encounters becomes too sticky to navigate on her own.
“You are looking for your father,” Jeanne is told by an old woman upon arriving in Nawal’s home village. “But you don’t know who your mother is.” She soon will.
Told largely in flashback at first and then dwelling more and more in the present day, as the events of the story catch up with the twins’ own lives, “Incendies” is perfectly paced. It’s like a detective story — complete with tantalizing on-screen chapter titles, like “The Woman Who Sings” — where a little bit of poking around gradually opens up a floodgate of information. But the waters don’t come all at once. First there is a tiny crack and a trickle. Then comes the torrent.
When it hits, it hits hard.
Much of what comes out has to do with Nawal’s life before the twins were born. An educated, relatively liberated Christian in a culture wracked by sectarian strife — and in which women were often second-class citizens — Nawal has seen much. And so do we, through her eyes. One sequence alone, in which a busload of mainly Muslim women and children is attacked and set fire by gun-toting members of a Christian militia, would be more than enough horror for any single film. But it is only one of many casual cruelties that Nawal — who escapes that conflagration when she pulls out her crucifix — experiences.
The massacre is the turning point in Nawal’s then-young life, and it leads her down a road of fatal choices and increasingly sickening atrocities from which there is no deviation and from which there may or may not be redemption. That is the central question of the movie.
On one level, “Incendies” is an antiwar film like any other. The brutality of the conflict that took place in Lebanon in the 1970s and 1980s is shown in stark, unflinching terms. And no one, neither Christian nor Muslim, is a hero.
But the terms in which “Incendies” tells its harrowing yet strangely beautiful story are personal, not political, or in any way generic. This gives it a power beyond rational argument.
Its title is well chosen. The flames of war may only burn its victims, but their scars, “Incendies” suggests, can be passed on to the next generation.
Contains violence, brief obscenity and other disturbing thematic material. In French and Arabic with English subtitles.