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Family mysteries, buried violence
on February 28, 2011
Based on a play by Wajdi Mouawad, Incendies is a mystery and family history exposing the uncomfortable reality that our parents had a life before we were born, that we, as their children, can never truly know that life, and, as such, can never truly know our parents.
Nawal Marwan has died and she has left instructions for her twin children, Jeanne and Simon. Jeanne is to find their father; Simon is to find their brother. Their father, they thought, was already dead, and the existence of a brother was heretofore unknown to them. Simon, angry and resentful, dismisses his mother's dying but confounding wishes. Jeanne, for her part, embarks on a quest to find these mysterious relatives of which she had no knowledge, headed for the country of her mother's birth, the fictional Fouad.
Here, the narrative alternates between Jeanne's present-day investigation and Nawal's own harrowing story. It is this story upon which Incendies is built and it is this story that draws us, the audience, in--just as it will forever remain indistinct to Nawal's children. Having narrowly escaped an honour killing for having become pregnant out of wedlock, Nawal alternates between the two sides of a civil war, eventually ending up in prison where she is raped and tortured but gains an almost legendary status as The Woman Who Sings.
The film's pace is slow, methodical, with sudden bursts of gut-wrenching action. The violence, however, is there only because the story demands it, not to shock or cause undue and unnecessary discomfort (discomfort that is too often justified by the makers of art-house films with claims of "telling the truth"). The violence is brutal, but the victims are treated with dignity. For the most part, the brutality is allowed to exist in the viewer's imagination. Tension is created through admirable restraint: A man stands, a small smile upon his lips, examining a frightened woman bound to a chair. She is aware of his intensions. We are aware of his intensions.
There are also moments of levity; a metal detector getting the biggest laughs.
The story does, at times, veer into the realm of the improbable, but this, like the violence, is not to shock or fit a pre-constructed narrative, but to make a point. Beyond the ever-presence of familial mysteries, Incendies deals with violence, not simply as a cycle, but as a web, spreading in often blind directions, sometimes turning upon itself, even as it continues to grow. To make this point, the filmmaker must take some liberties with credibility, but always operating truthfully within the fictional world he has created.
Incendies, written and directed by Denis Villeneuve, a man whose work will be familiar to most followers of Québec cinema, is an intense, stark film, well acted and beautifully photographed. Fouad, here, stands in for a civil war-era Lebanon and, in turn, Jordan is used to depict Villeneuve's imaginary land. The cinematographer, André Turpin, depicts Fouad as a land victimized by its own history, arid and nearly devoid of colour, even as it is rendered beautiful by its scars.
Incendies was nominated for the foreign-language Oscar. Though it will find more favour within the art-house community than it will at the box office, it should allow Villeneuve entry into a greater, more diverse international market.