"Incendies (Scorched)" opened in town this Friday, just days before it made the short list of nominees for Best Foreign Film for this year's Academy Awards. It played in the Vancouver International Film Festival 2010, but I missed it then.
Fortunately, it received theatrical distribution; this devastating film on the horrors of conflict and its enormous human costs simply must be seen. Denis Villeneuve's searing work, his fourth feature, is based on the celebrated play of the same name by Montreal native and artistic director of the French Theatre at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa Wajdi Mouawad. While there is no doubting the immediacy and impact it must have had as a piece of theatre, "Incendies" benefits from the transition to the larger canvas of the big screen, appropriate for the epic themes and emotional conflagrations it tackles.
When their mother dies and her will is read, twins Jeanne and Simon Marwan are stumped by its bizarre burial instructions. Nawal Marwan states that she must be interred naked and facing away from the sun in an unmarked grave, until the two letters she has left with the family notary are delivered on her behalf. One is addressed to the father the twins believed dead, the second to a son whose existence comes as a complete surprise to them. The will makes the twins realize that they did not know their mother at all. They have not had an easy relationship with her, and are understandably reluctant to comply with her terms.
The daughter Jeanne moved away and found refuge in the abstract realms of pure mathematics. Her sibling Simon, who remained at home, had the more complicated relationship because he dealt daily with Nawal's strangeness. Jeanne agrees to deliver the letter that was left to her, and embarks on an odyssey of discovery, in search of the father she has never known. Later, she convinces Simon to join her.
Although the Middle Eastern country is never named in the film, Wajdi Mouawad ascribes the inspiration for his play to Soha Becharra, a woman who was imprisoned for six years in Khiam, southern Lebanon. In an interview with the Montreal Gazette, he explained "For me, the success of this play and the film is a way to give back some life to a woman whose life was taken away from her." The cinematic endeavor is hugely, powerfully successful: as Jeanne scours an alien land for clues of her mother's past, we see Nawal's tough life in flashback in the same locations that her daughter visits for the first time. Sectarian strife, tribal and religious warfare, family blood feuds, and honor killings have been the blight of the Middle East and areas as far as Afghanistan and what is now Pakistan, and parts of Africa. Bloodshed and violence have been a way of life; each side claims to be justified in killing to avenge earlier injustices. While humankind has not lost its baser urges—we just have to recall the recent incident of the young Afghani woman whose nose was hacked off, or the countless rapes in present day DR Congo—the film is a plea for reconciliation and forgiveness to bring about the much needed change.
Nawal barely escapes an honor killing due to her unwed pregnancy, gives up her baby son for adoption, and spends the rest of her life looking for this lost child. Along the way, she takes sides in the violence and is imprisoned for fifteen years for shooting a political leader. Upon her release, she begins life anew in Canada with her infant twins, the outcome of brutal rape at the hands of a torturer. Regardless of the change in geography, she remains haunted by the past and her unending quest for her lost child. How does one look for reparation and justice, when the perpetrators frequently flee the country of their misdeeds and seek asylum elsewhere? As she has not kept her word to her son to return to him, she feels unworthy of a proper burial. A character in the film wisely observes that death always leaves its traces, and Jeanne and Simon finally get to know their mother from the relics of her life.
The Belgian actress Lubna Azabal's heroic performance brings Nawal to awe-inspiring Brechtian life. Undefeated by each dehumanizing blow, she stoically navigates a war-crazed world devoid of any sense, her driving force is the need to reunite with her son. Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin and Maxim Gaudette do excellent work as the siblings who gradually begin to understand their mother. Rémy Girard and Allen Altman, playing the Canadian and Middle Eastern notaries respectively, guide the siblings through their search, while Abdelghafour Elaaziz makes an impact in the small but important role of Abou Tarek the torture specialist. The rest of the characters are brought to life by a talented cast of unknown actors; in their hands, even the smallest roles acquire great significance. Denis Villeneuve's film honors the stories of these people by rigorously avoiding directorial excesses. Events and stories this powerful do not require embellishment, and Villeneuve's spare, dispassionate directorial style maximizes impact.
Someone remarked that "Incendies" is the closest contemporary approximation of Greek tragedy, and I agree with this assessment: the crimes and consequences are universal and timeless, and if a film holds up a mirror to question our capacity for barbarism, it is reason to applaud. Regardless of the outcome at the Academy Awards, "Incendies" is a major achievement for Canadian cinema.
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