Lubna Azabal, Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin, Rémy Girard
(Sony Pictures Classics)
US theatrical: 22 Apr 2011 (Limited release)
The struggle over who we are is always connected to the battle over where we come from. Are we a combination of our parent’s cultures? Their specific countries of origin or the half-realized heritage from each? None of the above? All? Some still incomprehensible mix? And where, exactly does faith fit into all of this. Are we really Christian or Muslim because of our birth alone or do such distinctions no longer matter? These are some of the questions raised by the terrific if tricky film Incendies. Nominated this past year for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, this story of French-Canadian twins on a personal odyssey to discover their roots regularly challenges our notions of who we are. It also suggests, sometimes, the unthinkable or unimaginable is just a simple threatening and/or tragic situation away.
When a notary named Lebel contacts the children of his recently deceased secretary Nawal Marwan (Lubna Azabel), he has some startling news for them. Seems Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) and Simon (Maxim Gaudette) are unaware that their supposedly dead father is still alive and that they have a brother that they never knew. Both are located in the Middle East and, as a dying wish, their mother wants them contacted and letters hand delivered to them. At first, Simon shuns the idea, incapable of dealing with the familial betrayal. Jeanne, on the other hand, travels overseas and soon finds herself embroiled in a mystery over who her parents actually are and what roll they may or may not have played in the country’s horrific conflicts.
There are so many levels to Incendies (translation: “Scorched”) that you can forgive co-writer/director Denis Villeneuve for over-focusing on a few. It doesn’t distract from the overall effect, and the ending still packs a significant wallop, but we do see through the narrative’s natural allure to acknowledge where manipulation, and a bit of political grandstanding, clearly exists. Based on the play by Wajdi Mouawad and focusing on the fierce interrelated issues that drove events like the civil war in Lebanon, this film adaptation captures the complexities only hinted at elsewhere, arguing that who we are and what we are capable of come from more marginal designs than heredity and environment. In essence, Incendies argues that, given the proper circumstances, anyone is capable of anything. Equally enthralling, it suggests that those who do not learn from their nationalist past may indeed be doomed to repeat it…or at the very least, fail to recognize it.
Of course, no movie about the Middle East can avoid the question of religion, and in this case, most of that happens to the character of Nawal (featured in flashbacks) stems directly from differences in faith. From parental disapproval over who she can and cannot love to a conversion of convenience gone horrifically sour, we see how easily God can cloud the issues. In fact, the whole notion of organized belief becomes a beleaguered symbol of some otherwise obvious universal truth - people will find any excuse to hate each other. In Nawal’s case, that anger become action, and it is in these moments that Incendies finds it novelty. It’s not good enough to call oneself a Christian or Muslim in this questionable quagmire. Instead, one must prove their allegiance in ways not always meaningful…or moral.
At the center is Nawal’s conversion from child to assassin (handled with amazing skill by actress Azabel), something that is soon mirrored in what Jeanne and Simon learn about their long lost relatives. Apparently, no one is immune from the sickening siren song of war, especially when the distinctions are so easily based around superstition and hate. As with the opening sequence that shows young boys being readied for the military, their head shaved to the poetic backing of Radiohead’s “You and Whose Army?”, it’s all about indoctrination and forced fidelity. We never really get an explanation as to why the choice of God is important. It merely becomes a mask under which seemingly just and humane people will de-evolve into mindless, murdering drone. As the horrors become clear, as rape and torture and death draw us deeper into the abyss, Incendies hopes to help us see clearly. It doesn’t always succeed.
Part of the problem is Villeneuve. Trying to balance style with substance is never easy, and for a while, the filmmaker finds an uneasy if off kilter equilibrium. But just when the movie needs to move away from such finery and get down to the brass tacks of serious business, the flights of fancy remain. Sure, they are amazing to look at and think about, but we are tracking the tale of killers and the condemned. Only someone like David Lynch can get away with turning terror into awe-inspiring art. Also, Villeneuve seems indebted to other ‘epic out of the ordinary’ directors like Alfonso Cuarónand Alejandro González Iñárritu, except in the case of Incendies, we get too much scope and not enough plain insight.
Still, this is a staggering work that builds to a horrific climax that will stun as well as startle. While staying solidly within the bounds it began with, Incendies does what it can to alter our perspective. Indeed, that’s the inherent allure of the storyline - taking a couple of normal French Canadian young people and repositioning them as accidental survivors of war and its atrocities. Sometimes, the truths hit far too close to home, both internally and externally.
When she travels to her native area and is resoundingly scorned by everyone who lives there, Jeanne experiences the sharpest of contrasts. In Canada, it’s who she is and what she wants to be that defines her meaning. Back “home,” in the Middle East, it’s a strangled, simmering reputation of rage and rejection that proceeds her. In the end, this may be this entertaining and engaging movie’s biggest revelation. Who we are may actually have very little connection to our own perception. Sometimes, identity is bigger than that - and that can be a very bitter (and baffling) pill to swallow.