Film review: Incendies

by **

Dear Dad

How often has one decried that your closest friend may be your worst traitor and the family, your greatest tormentor? Despite the facetious way in which this lament is so frequently used, flippancy and bathos are certainly not the currency in Denis Villeneuve’s Academy Award nominated film.

Based on a play by Lebanese playwright, Wajdi Mouawad, Incendies is an excruciating investigation into the irreversible tragedies wrought by civil wars and a meditation on the notion of reconciliation. His plot leaves the audience reeling from punches he refuses to pull.

Jeanne (Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin) and Simon (Maxim Gaudette) are twin siblings who have been brought up in Canada. Their mother, Nawal Marwan (Lubna Azabal) is dead. Cause: indeterminate. In her will, she expresses her wish for Jeanne to seek out their father, whom the twins have thought long dead, and deliver to him a sealed envelope. Simon, too, is to find a brother they never knew they have, and deliver to him another sealed envelope. To accomplish those missions, however, Jeanne and Simon have to journey to their mother’s homeland in the Middle East to retrace her torrid past.

Villeneuve takes us from middle-class urban Canada, probably Quebec, to the winding mountain roads and dusty villages of the Middle East — country unspecified but probably Lebanon. He disgorges us from the present into the past, and back, then forth, as he skilfully unfurls parallel odysseys trekked by the twins today — in their quest to solve the conundrum — and by their mother many years ago — in her desperate bid to find the son she was forced to leave behind. Through artistic unities, he fuses the two journeys: Jeanne opens her eyes to the heat of the arid barren land that lulled her mother to nod years before and her daughter’s bus wends through the same route round the mountain as the bus that carried Nawal then.

The family tumult in Nawal’s early life was a microcosm of the full-blown civil war between Muslims and Christians that she was soon to be caught up in. Pregnant with the baby of a Muslim boyfriend, who had been gunned down by her Christian brothers in cold blood, Nawal became a pariah. Straight after delivery, her newborn son was taken away and Nawal was banished from her village.

While the cycle of violence and reprisal attacks on Christian institutions and Muslim communities render the absurdities of war, it is Nawal’s disillusionment and numerous defections from side to side that illuminate the ambiguity of putative causes and stunning similarities of the warring sides — if they are not in fact one of the same. Indeed, the internecine destruction of civil war is the salutary message that reverberates vigorously throughout the narrative.

Character development has been invested with considerable thought and behavioural subtleties are quietly delicious. Simon’s initial display of contempt for his late mother suggests Nawal’s turbulent struggle with a forced motherhood. That Jeanne is a nascent mathematician lends her the intellectual rigour to pursue and unravel the confounding puzzle while Jean Lebel (Remy Girard), Nawal’s long-time employer and notary entrusted with execution of the will, represents the impartial keeper of records for posterity, for “Death is never the end of the story”.

The film is studded with fine and complex performances. Azabal gives Nawal a staggering emotional ride. Her haunting look, transfixed at some point in the distance, speaking the unspeakable, leaves a deep and lasting chill — a chill that climaxes in Desormeaux-Poulin’s final gut-wrenching gasp of horror. There is exemplary work too from Gaudette and Girard, not forgetting of course the village locals to whom the production owes its authentic flavour.

Truth and reconciliation are often advocated over the ashes of civil war. While Incendies ends by telling us that truth will ultimately lead to reconciliation, it shows us all too vividly the overwhelming pain that could stand in the way.