'Incendies' an epic tragedy of love, war, and forgiveness
s one character observes late in the film, Incendies, "One spark sets everything off." And so it does, in this searing family drama from French-Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve, an epic Greek tragedy of a film that's not for the fainthearted. Adapted from the internationally acclaimed stage play by Lebanese-born writer-actor-director Wajdi Mouawad, it examines the relentless cycles of violence and reprisals in the Middle East (and everywhere else) from a uniquely personal viewpoint that's both powerful and horrifying. This is a film one admires after the fact for the strength of its vision, but it's a harrowing thing to sit through.
A nominee for this year’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, Incendies ranges from cool urban Canada to the volatile Middle East, and from the most brutal depths of human behavior to our most soaring capacities for love and forgiveness. But it begins innocently enough, rather like a well-behaved drawing-room mystery, with heirs assembled for the reading of a will.
Jeanne (Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin) and Simon (Maxim Gaudette) are adult twins, raised in Canada by their mother, a refugee from an unnamed Middle Eastern war zone. When their mother dies, and her employer, professional notary Jean Lebel (Remy Girard), gathers them to hear her last wishes, the twins are each given a sealed letter, one addressed to the father and one to the brother they never knew they had. Her request is that they go to the Mideast, track down these phantom relations, and deliver the letters. Simon wants no part of this last "crazy" request from a mother who never did anything "normally," but Jeanne, an assistant professor of mathematics who believes in finding "logical" solutions to every problem, sets out for her mother's home village to begin her search.
From this point, the film narrative divides in two. Most prominent is the story of the twins' mother, Nawal (an exceptional performance by Lubna Axabal), as a young woman; she journeys from a teenager who "disgraces" her Christian family with a Muslim boyfriend, to an idealistic university student promoting peace, to an embittered operative in the war between a brutal Christian militia and vengeful Muslim refugees. In the parallel story, Jeanne traces her mother's footsteps through the past, searching for (and often misinterpreting) clues, armed with only a blurry, 35-year-old snapshot, and no idea at all of the horrors her mother endured.
As the trail for both women leads from village to university, from refugee camp to notorious prison, and the plot becomes more complex and entwined, it becomes harder and harder to differentiate between the opposing factions unleashing such savagery on each other. This is the film's strongest suit, the point that endless retaliation ultimately makes monsters of everyone involved, however noble one's original vision of the cause might have been. It's easy to get lost in the labyrinthine plot, trying to keep track of who's on which side at any given moment, but after awhile, it doesn't matter. What comes across most vividly is the dehumanizing effect of the ongoing us-against-them mentality (whether based on religion or any other ancient tribal rivalry), when massacres are considered justified, and busloads, truckloads, and entire orphanages full of innocent lives are deemed somehow expendable.
As the notary, Label, points out, "Death is never the end of the story." And this is certainly true in the case of Nawal, whose journey is the heart of the film. Subjected to every sort of loss, heartbreak, horror and abuse in the course of her story, she nevertheless reaches out from beyond the grave with one final, astonishing act of empathy and forgiveness, instructing all concerned to "break the chain of anger," once and for all.
The meaning of the French word incendies is variously translated as "fire" or "scorching," and there are dark moments in this film that burn themselves onto your frontal lobes. There are also plot twists of mythic-style melodrama that some viewers may cite as an excuse to dislike or discredit the film. But all drama is a game of "what if...?" in a heightened reality, and out of this material, Villeneuve constructs a potent morality play that stays with you.
★★★ (out of four) Watch film trailer >>>
With Lubna Axabal, Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin, and Maxim Gaudette. Written and directed by Denis Villeneuve. From the play by Wajdi Mouawad. A Sony Classics release. (R) 130 minutes. In French and Arabic with English subtitles.
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