Saturday, March 19, 2011

Incendies Movie Review

This film will open commercially in the United States on 22 April 2011.

Immediately after being born, an infant child is tattooed with three black dots on his heel. This act serves no function except as a narrative device so that at various points throughout the film, the audience (and later a character) will recognize who he is. The Canadian film Incendies, which was nominated for the Foreign Language Film Oscar this year, is built on a series of absurd coincidences contrived specifically for the purposes of completing a narrative.

The woman who gives birth to that baby is Nawal Marwan played by Lubna Azabal who may be somewhat familiar to American audiences after a small role in Body of Lies and in the Oscar nominated film from the Palestinian Territories, Paradise Now. Nawal is an Arab Christian from an unspecified Middle Eastern country, though it bears some historical resemblance to Lebanon. The film is written and directed by Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve based on a play of the same name by Wajdi Mouawad, a Canadian born in Lebanon.

The film opens in the office of a notary after Nawal’s death. The notary, Jean Lebel (Rémy Girard), has two letters for her twins, Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) and Simon (Maxim Gaudette). One letter is for their father and the other for their brother, neither of whom they had any idea still existed. Nawal’s testament stipulates that they are to locate these two men and deliver the letters in sealed envelopes, after which a third letter will be presented to Jeanne and Simon.

Simon has little interest in pursuing the story of their mother. He has an obvious resentment over her apparent indifference toward her children and lack of real maternal care. Jeanne is curious enough that she makes the journey to the Middle East with little to go on other than a photo of her mother as a young woman and a tip from her university colleague who points her to an acquaintance at “the university over there” (the characters speak in very generic terms about location) who might be able to help.

The film is structured like a mystery slowly pieced together and the themes are straight out of Ancient Greek tragedy. After Jeanne begins to learn a few facts about her mother’s history, the film flashes back and forth between past and present, slowly piecing together the different parts of the puzzle. The main drawback to the structure of the film is that the flashbacks don’t reflect what Jeanne has learned. The vantage point of the narrative is omniscient, so it is at times difficult to keep track of what Jeanne knows and doesn’t know versus what we know about Nawal.

I say the subject matter and themes are reminiscent of the works of Sophocles and Aeschylus. There are so many incredible coincidences littered throughout the story that it becomes a little bit hard to swallow. The Ancient Greek dramatists relied on similar coincidences. In fact, the drama of their work absolutely depended on it and was deepened by it. But drama has come a long way in 2500 years and I demand a little bit more. Perhaps the story works much better on stage. Film is the dramatic medium that perhaps best represents reality. It doesn’t have to, of course, but Incendies is presented as realism and as such it makes the unbelievable turns of events that much more difficult to accept.

As a young woman Nawal was in love with a man and became pregnant. He was killed by her family and she was kept locked away in secret until the baby was born, at which point her son was taken away and sent to an orphanage, but not before being adorned with the identifying tattoo. She vows to find her son to be reunited with him and so she abandons the extended family members she’s sent to live with while studying at the university and heads to “the south” in the midst of a civil war in which Christians and Muslims are engaged in wholesale slaughter of each other.

As a Christian, Nawal can play both sides, removing the crucifix hanging around her neck to pass for a Muslim or simply displaying it to reveal her true religion. But when she witnesses an act of such irredeemable violence committed by a Christian militia, her loyalty and worldview are forever altered leading her to an act of violence that lands her in a prison that would give Human Rights Watch a heart attack. I won’t say anymore about the plot details because it’s worth seeing how the revelations unfold if you choose to see it.

As the plot unfolds you can’t help but wonder why Nawal chooses to put her children through a series of emotional torments and trials to reveal to them the truth of their origin. The truth they learn serves no real purpose in their lives. It is unlikely to help them in any way whatsoever and will likely create a host of problems. This is not to mention the possibility that Jeanne and Simon may not even be able to find their father and brother, both of whom were active militants in the war and thirty years after the fact it’s only by several amazing strokes of luck that Jeanne meets the right people and that their memories serve them well enough to give just enough pieces of the puzzle that she can move on to the next location. But then Nawal was quite a memorable person in her day. As luck would have it so was the son she was forced to give up. Oh, and by the way, Jeanne and Simon’s father was also quite infamous. Without the confluence of these remarkable plot points, the whole thing would fall apart.

The attempt here is illustrate the powerful force of love and the destructive force of hatred. The love Nawal has for the son she saw only briefly after his birth stands in stark contrast to the violence she sees committed in the name of religious animosity. Where I’m less convinced is in her love for her twins, who were born under circumstances of extreme duress and whom Nawal didn’t actually want in the first place. Simon’s reaction to her death and setting of the mystery task suggests she was not a loving and supportive mother. These facts must be called into question after the final reveal. None of the answers are very clear.

You know, if someone wrote a story today that involved a man who sent his infant son to die because it was prophesied that the boy would one day murder his father and marry his mother and then the son, instead of being killed, was given up to another couple and then that boy grew to be a man who heard a prophecy that he would kill his own father and marry his mother, then left home met a man on the road, killed him, moved on and married the dead man’s wife and it turned out those were his real birth parents, I’d say that’s a ridiculously contrived and unbelievable set of coincidences. It was okay when Sophocles wrote it because he was the first dramatist to do it. I’m afraid it doesn’t work well in 2011.


  1. It's not so much coincidence as it may seem. Without the father being so famous, the kids wouldn't be able to find him, I agree on that. However, he became famous, which kept him alive and without this fact, the kids would not have been born.
    There are less coincidences then you might think. Without those, there would not be a story. Or at least not an interesting one.

  2. Sorry, I put my question in the wrong box earlier. Jason, are you able to identify the music that accompanies the score to Incendies? Thanks.