When notary Lebel (Rémy Girard) sits down with Jeanne and Simon Marwan (Mélissa Désormeaux Poulin, Maxim Gaudette) to read them their mother Nawal’s will (Lubna Azabal), the twins are stunned to receive a pair of envelopes – one for the father they thought was dead and another for a brother they didn’t know existed.
In this enigmatic inheritance, Jeanne sees the key to Nawal’s retreat into unexplained silence during the final weeks of her life. She immediately decides to go to the Middle East to dig into a family history of which she knows next to nothing.
Simon is unmoved by their mother’s posthumous mind games. However, the love he has for his sister is strong, and he soon joins her in combing their ancestral homeland in search of a Nawal who is very different from the mother they knew.
With Lebel’s help, the twins piece together the story of the woman who brought them into the world, discovering a tragic fate as well as the courage of an exceptional woman.
An adaptation of Wajdi Mouawad’s hit play, INCENDIES is a deeply moving story that brings the extremism and violence of today’s world to a starkly personal level, delivering a powerful and poetic testament to the uncanny power of the will to survive.
Scavenger Hunt for Family Secrets Across Time and Geography by A O Scott
Denis Villeneuve’s “Incendies,” a film very much occupied with some of the grisly realities of recent history, nonetheless has the structure, and some of the atmosphere, of an ancient folk tale. It is a quest narrative, about children searching out the mysteries of their parentage, and also the story of a resourceful heroine, the mother of those children, surviving an almost unimaginable series of ordeals.
These entwined plots unfurl in the recognizable, modern world — in Quebec and an unnamed country that closely resembles Lebanon — and at the same time in an allegorical universe governed by the tightly coiled logic of fate. Judged by strictly naturalistic standards, the flurry of revelations and coincidences that wrap up the double story may seem implausible. But strict verisimilitude would not serve the dramatic ends that “Incendies,”based on a play of the same name by Wajdi Mouawad, sets out to serve. The knotted destinies of its characters are like the family secrets in a Shakespearean or classical comedy but turned to a darker purpose.
Among the film’s subjects is kinship, the often painful ways that bonds of blood connect strangers and enemies. When their mother, Nawal (Lubna Azabal), dies, Jeanne and Simon Marwan (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin and Maxim Gaudette), twins who have grown up Canadian, discover that her last will and testament requires them to set off on a kind of scavenger hunt across time and geography. Jeanne, who is pursuing a graduate degree in mathematics, is charged with finding the father she and Simon never knew. Simon, who seems more deeply scarred by the obscure tragedy of their mother’s solitary, circumspect life, is instructed to seek out another brother, whose existence he and his sister never suspected.
The twins are encouraged and assisted in their quest by Jean Lebel (Rémy Girard) the avuncular notary who had been their mother’s employer for many years. Their travels in a relatively peaceful and functional 21st-century quasi-Lebanon are interwoven with episodes from their mother’s life during the nation’s long and gruesome civil war. Those chapters, shifting from hillside villages to cities and refugee camps, from the verdant north of the country to its dusty south, give Mr. Villeneuve’s film novelistic depth and epic expansiveness. They also display his sensitive eye for landscape (the non-Canadian sections were shot in Jordan) and his discreet use of digital effects to simulate the large-scale effects of war.
Though its details are fictional, this chronicle is impressively nuanced in its rendering of Lebanese politics and society in the 1970s and ’80s. As a young woman, Nawal provokes the violent disapproval of her family when she falls love with a Muslim and flees her hometown for the capital. Subsequently, as a student and an activist, a clandestine militant and a political prisoner, she crosses back and forth between the warring groups. In one of the most wrenching scenes the Christian identity she had repudiated saves her life but at the price of making her the helpless witness and silent accomplice to a massacre by Phalangist fighters.
Mr. Villeneuve tells Nawal’s story in a way that is both subtle and emphatic, and Ms. Azabal, portraying Nawal from hopeful youth to despairing middle age, gives a performance that is all the more powerful for the restrained, unshakeable sense of dignity she brings to it. The depth and complexity of her anger is both a product and a mirror of her native country’s self-destructive pathology, and as the full horror of her life is disclosed, she becomes, in her children’s eyes and the audience’s, as grand and tragic as the heroine of an opera.
But if “Incendies” were her story alone, it might have been too much: an overwrought and awkward slog through a bloody stretch of the past. The perspective of Jeanne and Simon, modern Canadians wholly unaware of their roots in that history, makes the film into something more elusive and complex, a meditation on memory and identity that recalls some of the recent films of Atom Egoyan. How are the twins to understand their relationship with their mother in the light of what they learn about her? What does it mean for them to be so intimately and yet obscurely tied to an inheritance of rape, torture, assassination and terror? What could help them understand this legacy and move beyond it?
One answer, at once peculiar and persuasive, lies in the unassuming person of Lebel, a consistently reassuring presence who seems, even when bearing very bad news, to provide a measure of calm and safety. It is nearly impossible to imagine him either subjected to or responsible for any kind of atrocity. Mr. Girard, one of Quebec’s finest actors, has a dumpling face and genial demeanor made for comedy, and he turns Lebel into a marvelously paradoxical figure. Even in French, the phrase “heroic Canadian notary” sounds like a punch line, but it fits this man exactly and also illuminates one of the movies crucial themes.
Lebel — along with a Lebanese colleague, a fellow member of a global fraternity of dutiful document filers and data organizers — represents a way of engaging the world that is fundamentally opposed to the chaos and cruelty that defined Nawal’s homeland during her time there. The notary’s job is to keep records and specify the mutual obligations of the living and the dead. This work may be tedious, but it can also be profoundly humane. And though “Incendies” provides an unflinching account of brutality, it also suggests that to keep such an account can be a transformative act of kindness.
Directed by Denis Villeneuve; written by Mr. Villeneuve, based on the stage play by Wajdi Mouawad; director of photography, André Turpin; edited by Monique Dartonne; music by Grégoire Hetzel; production design by André-Line Beauparlant; costumes by Sophie Lefebvre; produced by Luc Déry and Kim McCraw; released by Sony Pictures Classics. In French and Arabic, with English subtitles.
INCENDIES by director Dennis Villeneuve
Wajdi Mouawad’s critically acclaimed stageplay Incendies was presented in Montreal in 2004. I bought the two last tickets of the last show. Very bad seats: front row. The actors were so close, they were spitting in my face. The play lasted four hours. It took me 3 minutes to get into it. The rest of the show was the most impressive theatrical experience of my life.
Incendies follows the journey of two young adults, a twin brother and sister, searching for their roots. This painful voyage to the core of anger and violence will change them forever and shed new light on their understanding of a conflict they knew little about. Like the twins, I know nothing about war. But like them, I know about silence, haunting secrets and anger poisoning families. That was my door into Wajdi’s world: intimacy.
How can one break the cycle of anger that fuels those seemingly eternal conflicts, from generation to generation? Maybe what I needed the most then was what Wajdi offered with Incendies: comfort. But how can one offer comfort to the inconsolable? In this critical inquiry lies the essence of the project. In a strange way that brings me both joy and sadness, I find hope in this beautiful story, perhaps because it provides some kind of understanding about childhood. And, of course, about war.
I started working on Incendies well before we were once again witness to history repeating itself in the Middle East. Images that had haunted me for months were once again making headlines. History is an infernal spiral and sadly, Incendies is more than ever relevant. We will be hearing about the atrocities Middle Eastern people went through this time around for a long time…and we have to listen. We have to know. We have to find a way out.
We have to find a way to console the unconsolable. I believe cinema can, be it only in a very small and humble way, make a difference.