Film review by: Witney Seibold
Denis Villaneuve’s “Incendies” is a combination melodramatic potboiler, timely political thriller, and legitimate detective story, and manages to be all of those things well; it is, in turns, tense, wrought, politically significant, and barely scraping the ceiling of being over-the-top lurid (which can be, depending on your state of mind, a strength). It was nominated for an Academy Award last year for Best Foreign Language Film, and is only now getting screentime in the U.S. While its mysteries may be a touch over-the-top, and the big reveal may, after the film is over, feel a mite theatrical and manipulative (it was adapted from a play after all), “Incendies’” storytelling is first rate, carefully unfolding several tales at different times in a seamless fashion.
I wish I had known a little bit more about the various conflicts in the Middle East, however, as a lot of the film’s recent history is not illustrated clearly for us memory-history-deficient Americans. The film’s lead character, Nawal Marwan (the steely-eyed Lubna Azabal) wanders from rural areas of Lebanon into, I think, 1980s Afghanistan, and there were wicked Christian militias wandering the countryside, setting innocents on fire. I understood that she was in constant danger, but when a cadre of bad guys showed up, I wish I had known more about who they were. This is, admittedly, my own ignorance speaking, though.
Oh that poor Nawal. What strength she possessed not to fall into utter despair. She witnessed the killing of her boyfriend right in front of her at the hands of her relatives. She gave birth to an illegitimate child, and it was immediately taken away from her. She was ostracized and exiled. She swore to find her child again, with only the name of an orphanage and a small foot tattoo as clues. She did manage to go to college, but only picked up some dangerous political beliefs that had her joining a poorly-organized rebel underground. She fled the country in a bus, and was nearly killed several times by militias, all the while witnessing all manner of horrible war atrocities. She committed an assassination, wound up in prison where she was tortured and repeatedly raped, and only years after the fact managed to escape to Canada where she raised her new twin children Jeanne and Simon (as adults, Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin and Maxim Gaudette). She suffered other hardships as well, but I will not reveal those to you. While we follow Nawal, “Incendies” (literally “Burned”) feels almost more like a litany of horrors, and less like a person’s story.
The parallel story is that of the adult Jeanne and Simon, after Nawal’s death, as they are asked in her will to track down their missing brother, and attempt to initiate contact with their missing father. Jeanne is resolute, and demands closure to their mother’s life, which was, as we learn from resentful glances and cold dismissal, an arduous upbringing, and a weird and secretive relationship. Désomeaux-Poulin is a resolute and dark-eyed beauty, and she is a good enough actress that the story of her mother managed to reflect on her, rather than her just being a dull, utilitarian revealer of cold facts. It’s not until over and hour into the film that Simon also becomes interested in the investigation.
I can’t reveal everything they discover, sadly, which is frustrating; the actual dénouement is, as I have implied above, a shocking and lurid wrap-up that reveals horrors and crimes that are unspeakable. What I can say is that Nawal, despite being faced with the most terrible life, and having survived some of the most terrible traumas imaginable, still managed to end her life on a note of love and forgiveness.
Villaneuve has proven that he’s a skilled director, and can handle disparate storytelling of this fashion with a deftness rarely seen in most American mysteries. He realized that the slow discovery of facts and the gradual uncovering of information is where a mystery’s power lies, and not in a series of “shocking” twists, or a big explosive ending.
“Incendies” can feel artificially wrenching at times, and the story can feel a bit over-the-top, but it’s still such a strong feature made with confidence and assuredness.