Incendies (2010)

Director:  Denis Villeneuve
Cast:  Lubna Azabal, Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin, Maxim Gaudette
Plot:  Twins journey to the Middle East to discover their family history, and fulfill their mother's last wishes.

Genre:  Drama  /Mystery / War

Awards:  Nom. for 1 Oscar - Best Foreign Language Film
Runtime:  130min
Rating:  M18 for some strong violence and language.

One of Canada’s rising writer-directors, Denis Villeneuve made his name at the Berlin Film Festival by winning the FIPRESCI Prize for a hard-hitting drama called Maelstrom (2000).  He followed up with a brilliant short called Next Floor (2008), before directing a dramatization of the 1989 Montreal Massacre in Polytechnique (2009). 

Now in his latest film Incendies, which has been nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, Villeneuve shows that he is no fluke, directing an emotionally honest drama about family set to the pseudo-rhythm of an exploratory documentary.

While Incendies is purely a fictional narrative adapted from a play by Wajdi Mouawad, it appears to work like a recount of 'a true story'.  The plot is set up from the beginning, and everything that is set in motion afterwards is based on how the plot has been conveniently set up. 

Several critics have had some issues with the overall logicality of the premise while others argue that the focus should be on the viewing experience.  You see, the film starts out with two siblings, Jeanne (Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin) and Simon Marwan (Maxim Gaudette) getting an envelope each containing their mother’s last wishes, setting themselves out on a precarious journey to find out the truth about their family history.

Roger Ebert evades the issue altogether by reasoning that the plot device regarding the aforementioned mother’s last wishes is a MacGuffin.  See past it and one can appreciate how the story unfolds cleverly in two main narrative threads – that of Jeanne’s quest to discover her past, and in an earlier timeline, that of Jeanne’s mother, Nawal (Lubna Azabal) living through that past. 

Both threads are interwoven expertly; in some instances the transition between the two threads is almost non-existent, as if past and present have converged, yet Jeanne continues to struggle to bridge the 'knowledge gap'.

The film features impressive cinematography with much of its exterior scenes shot in Jordan.  Raw and gritty, Incendies is also uncompromising in its depiction of war violence caused by religious friction between the Christians and Muslims.  

Innocents are caught in between, and in a sequence of startling intensity, a bus full of civilians is shot at.  I won’t describe what happens thereafter, but it is truly a shocking episode to witness even to the most seasoned filmgoer. 

Yet despite all the grim material, Incendies sends a message of love and forgiveness.  It is not a particularly great film with some parts of it draggy, but it is quite an experience, haunting and emotionally resonating in its own way.

Verdict:  A slightly overdrawn film, but haunting and emotionally resonant in its own way.


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