LITTLE ROCK French Canadian director Denis Villeneuve’s Incendies is an intense and shattering experience, a nearly great film about promises and kinship and the secret, cruel lives our parents lived before we knew them. It’s a story that’s perhaps a little too neatly arranged to be plausible - it hinges on an unlikely, and horrible, coincidence - but the quality of the acting and Villeneuve’s insistence on exploring the emotional extremes of human nature make it as compelling as any film I’ve seen in the past decade or so. It’s only afterward that you might begin to ponder and parse the Shakespearean storytelling.
Based on the play of the same name by Wajdi Mouawad, which consists of a series of poetic monologues, Incendies - “scorched” would be an appropriate translation - feels a little like some of the elliptical work of Atom Egoyan or Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu in its fractured narrative. But it’s apparent from the opening scene - a silent tracking shot of boys having their heads shaved as Radiohead’s“You and Whose Army” plays on the soundtrack - that Villeneuve has a stylistic sensibility all his own.
It begins in Quebec, as two adult twins - Jeanne and Simon Marwan (Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin and Maxim Gaudette) - are summoned to hear the reading of the will of their just-deceased mother Nawal (Lubna Azabal). Nawal had named her longtime employer, the notary Jean Lebel (Remy Girard), executor of her estate, and directed him to give each of her children a letter to deliver. Jeanne is charged with finding their father, a man the twins never knew (and apparently presumed dead). Simon is given a letter to deliver to a brother the twins never knew they had.
Subtly, the film feeds us tantalizing bits of information; while Nawal is of Middle Eastern descent, her twins are thoroughly French Canadian.Jeanne is a promising graduate student in the field of pure (theoretical) mathematics. Simon seems somehow damaged by the solitary, somehow furtive life his mother led - we get a glimpse of his sad apartment overlooking the freeway, we feel we know him a bit. He is angry, baffled and prepared to dismiss her final request as just another symptom of her insanity.
But Jeanne is the dutiful daughter, and she sets off to an unnamed Middle Eastern country - whose complicated, bloody history parallels that of Lebanon - to begin to unravel the mystery of their father. She ends up following the thread from a bucolic hillside village to a large city and finally to the site of a notorious prison. And as she travels in a relatively peaceful nation, Villeneuve weaves in Nawal’s journey through the same landscape four decades earlier, when it was ravaged by civil war and sectarian violence.
Nawal’s struggles can be seen in any number of ways - she starts out as a peasant girl in love, morphs into a savvy student activist and ends up a defiant political prisoner. On one hand she’s a larger-thanlife heroine, suffused with an impregnable dignity. On the other hand, she does what she needs to do to survive, and it weighs on her - she ends up living a cloistered existence half a world away from the homeland in which she invested so much.
But Incendies is not just her story, it’s also the story of Jeanne’s discovery of her mother’s history, and the twins’ eventual reconciliation with their mother’s past. And it’s the story of the quiet, yet genuine heroism of the loyal notary, his rock like constancy and reassuring presence lending perspective to the story. The past is blood, chaos and sorrow - yet we move forward.
Lubna Azabal, Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin, Maxim Gaudette, Remy Girard
Denis Villeneuve Rating: R, for violence and language
130 minutes In French, Arabic and English with English subtitles
MovieStyle, Pages 33 on 06/24/2011
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