To quote The Mummy, “Death is only the beginning.”
I don’t care how irrelevant that seems, it completely applies to Incendies, the riveting familial drama that garnered a Best Foreign Film nomination for Canada at the 2010 Oscars. The film opens on a will reading, with twins Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) and Simon (Maxim Gaudette) hearing their deceased mother’s (Lubna Azabal) last wishes. She was a secretary and single mother living in Quebec, with a complex war-torn past that her children knew little about.
In her will she requests that they find their father (whom they believed dead) and brother (whom they didn’t know existed) to deliver them letters she wrote. Simon is initially uninterested in catering to his mother’s crazy wishes, but Jeanne travels to her hometown and old university in what I believe is Lebanon (I’m sorry, they only ever said city names that I didn’t recognize, and when I looked it up I couldn’t find any concrete mention of the setting, but the writer of the play is from Lebanon and the events coincide). With her brother’s begrudging help, she discovers a number of shocking truths about her family’s past, following a trail of breadcrumbs around the country in a seemingly futile mission.
I have seen several films that have left me with feelings of hopelessness and desolation, usually touching on too-real subject matter or historical injustice or doomed relationships. Often I will recognize how excellent these films are, but their bleakness might make me hesitate to recommend it to a friend or even watch it again. While certainly dismal in many ways, Incendies is so thrilling and twisted and good that I would recommend it to almost everyone. The parallel stories of Jeanne’ s amateur sleuthing and her mother Nawal’s horrendous journey through both sides of a civil war are expertly pitted against each other. As the audience learns the truth about Nawal’s history, we are eager to see Jeanne and Simon understand what she went through. However, the biggest mystery of all- the identities of their father and brother- are kept a secret from most of the characters and the viewers until the end, making it a truly enticing and staggering mystery.
Both Azabal and Poulin give dedicated performances as mother and daughter separated by a lifetime of lies. Azabal portrays Nawal through several stages of life, from lovesick teenager to self-assured freedom fighter to world-weary working mother. She is simultaneously expressive and unreadable, creating a strong, intricate character with a wealth of motivations and influences. Poulin is softer as Jeanne, a math lecturer driven by an unknown force to seek out the whole truth, even though it seems impossible and even though the more she learns the more she wishes she hadn’t.
Shot over a range of rocky, desert landscapes and crumbling towns, and edited to perfection, Incendies is captivating visually, but the real success lies in its completely fascinating story. It is tense and dark and beautiful, blending subtlety with shock value for a masterful final product.
Pair This Movie With: There are some similarities to Oldboy, but that would be one intense evening. To lighten the mood but keep with the Middle Eastern theme, I might suggest British terrorist black comedy Four Lions. Or any of those movies where you learn more about a person after he/she is dead, you know.
Incendies at The Dark of the Matinee (where I first heard about the film)