Thursday, June 2, 2011

"Incendies" Canadian Oscar Nominee: Brutal Surprises

"Incendies",  last year's Canadian Foreign-Language Oscar Nominee*, distills the brutality and confusion of decades of Middle Eastern conflict into human terms.  The result is a deeply disturbing look at the region's sordid violence and tragedy that the movies have given us since "Midnight Express".

It must have been a logistical nightmare to mount this picture.  It is suspenseful, with a clever (if icky) premise, and contains intimate personal moments as well as awful violence.  The performers play difficult roles with characteristic European understatement and intensity.  I was propelled by my need to discover the solution to the mystery that is at the center of the film.  But in retrospect I admired "Incendies" more than I enjoyed it.

"Incendies" (roughly translated as "fires" or "conflagrations") tells a story of a pair of grown twins, brother and sister, who must carry out their mother's dying wish to deliver two envelopes, one to a brother they never knew they had, and one to their father, who they assumed was dead. 

The film develops on parallel tracks. In one, a series of flashbacks describes the Mother's tragic journey, from disgraced villager who gives up her infant son, to radicalized assassin who switches allegiances to survive, to political prisoner who is tortured and raped.  In the other, we follow the present-day attempts of both twins to follow the clues that will lead them to their respective envelope recipients, leading to a horrible realization abut their own origins.

Let's just say that what they discover does "Chinatown" one better, and then some.

The film introduces the idea of  the unsolvable problems of pure mathematics (the female twin is an assistant to a mathematics professor), and equates it to the quandary that is the Middle East.  The moral and political confusion is symbolized by the Mother's tragic conflict of identity, and the Twins' discovery that horror and violence is their birthright.  The film seeks to dramatize the idea that in a world in which there is no escaping all-pervasive corruption and terror, where simply being born implicates us in the world's misery, the only way to accept living is to forgive.

The film (adapted from a play by Wadji Mouawad) makes its arguments in an original and interesting manner, even though I didn't always buy them.  I honestly felt that the Mother would have found a way to explain her life to her twins earlier, or else leave it unsaid unto death; and I felt the Twins' acceptance of the truth was too sudden, their lack of anger sort of unnatural. 

I had trouble with some of the transitions between past and present, which were sudden and unannounced.  The actresses who play the mother and daughter resemble each other so much that the effect is somewhat confusing; early on I wondered if they were played by the same actress, to make a thematic point.

As the Mother, Lubna Azabal is incredibly strong. She is in closeup for much of the film, creating an unforgettable tragic portrait of a woman trapped in an impossible situation, who behaves as though there were nothing more to lose.  Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin is smart and vulnerable in the role of the twin daughter, and carries a large section of the film.  As the twin son, Maxim Gaudette is interesting, but his portion of the main action is introduced late in the film.  I would have preferred a better balance between both twins' searches. Even so, his eleventh-hour reappearance lends a nice change of pace to the story.

Everything about "Incendies" is heavy.  Director Denis Villeneuve and his filmmakers have an obvious passion for the material and its inherent message.  And they have crafted a haunting piece of cinema, from the strength of their images to the wounding music score that opens the film and recurs. 

In the end, I didn't think the movie said anything new about the obvious horror and tragedy of war, or about the age-old conflicts still plaguing the Middle East.  It is a gripping series of gradually intensifying scenes leading to a nasty climax; one that may be so disturbing that it overshadows the film's message itself.

(*Note: The Danish film "In a Better World" was the ultimate recipient of the Foreign Language Film Oscar.)


  1. Glad to hear something about this. It started playing at my theater last weekend and sold out three nights in a row. Now that I know where it's from and what it's about, I can answer more customer questions. You've also piqued my interest with this review, even if you didn't love it.

  2. Walter, it's a good film, and I am glad it is doing so well. Seems like moviegoers everywhere are hungry for something more serious on the big screen. I grappled with this film, but it was worth it. Hope you get a chance to check it out.