Luckily, there’s plenty to this film besides it’s Middle Eastern setting. INCENDIES focuses primarily on relationships and human drama, while politics form the film’s periphery.
Incendies. Directed by Denis Villeneuve. At Coolidge Corner Theatre, Kendall Square Cinemas, and other theaters throughout New England.
By Taylor Adams
Incendies: a French word that translates loosely into “scorched.” An appropriate title for French Canadian director Denis Villeneuve’s new film, a timely global tale of family, fate, conflict, and tragedy that could knock even the most stoic of viewers off their feet.
You don’t choose your family. In this film, the very idea of filial bonds becomes a curse foisted upon the characters.
When we meet twenty-something twins Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) and Simon Marwan (Maxim Gaudette) in present-day Montreal, they are being read the will of their late mother by a notary (Rémy Girard) who was also her employer and, near the time of her death, a confidant of sorts.
He hands them letters addressed to a father they thought was dead and a brother they didn’t know existed, letters that their mother has stipulated must be delivered before she can be given a proper burial. “Childhood is like a knife stuck in the throat that cannot be easily removed,” the notary says.
Strong words — they contrast with everything we think we know about youth, happiness, and a family’s love. But as the twins gradually discover the tortured history of their mother and of their own origins, the adage starts to make sense. Childhood isn’t simply being young, it’s being someone’s child. For the twins, being the children of Nawal Marwan (Lubna Azabal) is no simple matter.
They’re sent off — first Jeanne, and later a far more reluctant Simon — to their mother’s homeland. The balance of the story unfolds in a nameless Middle Eastern everyland that nevertheless has a history of Christan-Muslim violence much like that of Lebanon in the 1970s.
The film melds elements of drama, mystery, and war-time epic. As the twins gradually uncover how perversely their family history is tied to the region’s conflicts and violence, the film’s narrative alternates between their investigation and the journeys and trials of their mother decades earlier.
Nawal’s story packs power and intensity. A strong woman in a male-dominated, conflict-torn society, she is dangerously at odds with the power of men’s will and men’s wars. This piece of the story begins as her Christian brothers murder her lover, a Muslim refugee, and almost kill her as well. She was pregnant with his child, and is forced after giving birth to flee the village, leaving the baby with an orphanage.
As the country’s nationalist forces begin flexing muscle and Christian militias fight back in a senseless cycle of killing, she is pulled into the pervasive violence even as she searches for her child. When she stands up to the hegemony surrounding her by assassinating a Christian militia leader, she is imprisoned and brutally punished.
Her story, though full of sensational turns, seems at its essence meant to represent the struggles of women in conflict zones throughout the Middle East and elsewhere. The frame tale of her children as they uncover her history is that of the lingering effects of such torture. The scars will be felt for generations to come.
The film, based on a French play by Wajdi Mouawad, was staged using only actors and chairs on a barren stage. Villeneuve knows the cinema and theater are different worlds, and the visual style of his adaptation is anything but minimal.
The camera sometimes roams, swoops, explores. In particularly pensive scenes, such cinematography is often accompanied by the somewhat puzzling but very effective use of British group Radiohead’s music on the soundtrack.
But the director knows when to back off. The camera lingers at distance during emotional exchanges, allowing the formidable acting and script to shine. The plot’s greatest revelation, whispered between the twins in pained, poetic dialog, could temporarily slip by viewers used to more bombastic modes of storytelling.
This isn’t a bad thing. Hollywood trappings would have made an unbelievable melodrama out of this tale. Instead, it’s affecting and gut wrenching, even if the plot’s multiple twists seem at times unlikely.
What Incendies is not: a crash course in the recent history of Middle Eastern religious conflict. The themes are classic (one twist strongly evokes a certain Greek tragedy) and universal, while the setting provides a timely peg. But whether the locale is more than scenery is somewhat up to the viewer — those without knowledge of the region’s history might miss some references and, at worse, feel a bit confused.
Luckily, there’s plenty to this film besides it’s Middle Eastern setting. Incendies focuses primarily on relationships and human drama, while politics form the film’s periphery. All that’s really important is how much of a hellish morass a region steeped in religious conflict can be. That idea, for one, is tragically obvious here.
When the family secret is eventually revealed, it is an inconceivable and devastating truth. It’s a truth you wouldn’t want thrust upon even the worst of villains — and certainly one that challenges Nawal’s belief that revelation and closure will bring her children together. The film indeed ends with narrative closure, but leaves open terrible questions that won’t leave your mind for days.