Dir. Dennis Villeneuve. Canada. 2010.

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“To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.” - Lewis B. Smedes

Adapted from the play “Scorched” by Wajdi Mouawad, Incendies is a film of searing emotional intensity, graphically depicting the brutality of war and the physical and emotional toll that it can bring to a country and its people. Directed by Quebec filmmaker Dennis Villeneueve (Malestrom, Polytechnique) and nominated for an Oscar for best Foreign Film, Incendies is the story of adult twins, Jeanne and Simon Marwan (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin, Maxim Gaudette), and their attempt to fulfill their mother's deathbed wishes by discovering their roots and a deeper understanding of who they really are. 

Strengthened by an outstanding performance by Belgian actress Lubna Azabal as the mother, the film is set in both present-day Montreal and the civil-war era in Fuad, a fictitious Middle Eastern country (most likely referencing Lebanon in the years 1975-90). The film opens to the music of Radiohead's “You and Whose Army?” as young Muslim boys are having their heads shaved as they prepare to become soldiers. As one boy stares into the camera, his eyes speak vividly of his terror. The scene then shifts to Montreal where the will of the twins' mother, Nawal's (Azabal) is being read to them by notary and long-time employer, Jean Lebel (Rémy Girard). 

Nawal's final wishes are that she be buried “naked, no prayers, face down, away from the world,” until her children hand-deliver two letters, one to the father they thought was dead, the other to their brother they never knew existed. As she writes in her will, it is only at the time that “the silence will be broken, a promise kept,” that she can be buried with a proper gravestone bearing her name. Shocked by his mother's request, Simon refuses to carry out her request but Jeanne agrees, feeling that she owes it to her mother's memory and to her own passion for the truth. As she heads to the Middle Eastern country where her mother was born, the film alternates, sometimes confusingly, between sequences from her mother's past and Jeanne's present day journey. 

Shot in Jordan, the film's landscapes, supported by André Turpin's striking cinematography, are starkly beautiful and add to the mystery of the search. What we think we know keeps changing and the drama is always engaging, though at times it can be horrifying. Jeanne visits her mother's hometown, goes to the university where she studied, and eventually to a women's prison, looking for any information that would lead her to her father, but her leads do not add up to much. Nawal's story begins when, at an early age, she is cast out of her Christian home when she becomes pregnant by a Muslim father who was shot to death before her eyes. After spending time in school, she seeks revenge for her husband's murder and begins her search for the son she gave up at birth. 

Her journey of discovery is not an easy one, either for Nawal or for the viewer. Scenes of ethnic conflict, religious bigotry, and female subjugation are vividly depicted, particularly in a scene where a bus containing Muslim women is ambushed and set on fire by militant Christian soldiers as the drum of background music covers the screams. Becoming a revolutionary and a political prisoner after her participation in an assassination, Nawal is held in solitary for thirteen years and, because of her singing in her cell to cover her pain and her refusal to break despite being tortured, she became known to everyone as “the woman who sings.” 

Jeanne's search continues fruitlessly until her brother Simon and the notary Lebel arrive to provide important contacts as the film moves towards a startling final revelation. Though the scenario may be implausible and the actors portraying the twins have no physical characteristics indicating their Arabic heritage, these factors did not get in the way of my involvement with the story. Incendies is a family drama, an abiding mystery, and a visceral cry against the insanity of war. Despite the traumatic violence it shows, it is a powerful, disturbing, and lyrical film, ending on a note of forgiveness and reconciliation and bringing us to a place of transcendence.


Howard Schumann

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