The most recent Oscar® race for Best Foreign Language Film has been one of the strongest in years, with nominations going to a diverse set of films including Yorgos Lanthimos’ controversial Dogtooth, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s haunting Biutiful and Rachid Bouchareb’s tale of Algerian brotherhood, Outside the Law. While the statuette eventually went to In A Better World, the strength of the field was such that the little gold man could have gone to any of the nominees with little argument. Denis Villeneuve’s Canadian adaptation of a play by Wajdi Mouawad is no exception, and may be one of the most powerful films of the year.
When Jeanne (Mélissa Désomeaux-Poulin, Taking the Plunge 2) and Simon Marwan’s (Maxim Gaudette, Polytechnique) mother dies, they attend a reading of the will by notary Lebel (Rémy Girard, The Barbarian Invasions). They are shocked to learn that their father is still alive, and of the existence of a brother that they had not previously known of. So begins a journey to the Middle East to trace their mother Narwal’s (Lubna Azabal) heritage, and her hardships growing up in a country torn apart by civil war, uncovering secrets that were perhaps best kept hidden away.
By deliberately placing itself in an undefined space, with Lebanon and Iran as possible inspirations for the unnamed nation Narwal hails from, Villeneuve avoids some of the more obvious political implications with this story. Citing Costa-Gavras’s Z as an influence, Villeneuve’s adapted screenplay concentrates on the human journey and the more universal themes about the ‘sins of the parent’ and how these impact on future generations. Incendies defies the more melodramatic expectations one might have of this kind of film by placing itself first and foremost as a mystery, one that becomes more complex and horrific as we uncover additional layers. It reveals itself at a steady pace, and is in not particular hurry to play its hand. Instead, it wants us to understand each layer as it is presented, drawing the audience into the crimes of the past to an extent that we are almost complicit with the actions. Caught in the middle of a violent conflict between Christians and Muslims, Narwal refuses to side with her family, despite being from a Christian background. As the story unfolds, the consequences of this action becomes increasingly devastatingly apparent.
Azabal is magnificent in the role of Narwal, whose story is told through a series of flashbacks that dominate the film. Her fierce defiance of the status quo, and the fundamentalist dominance of the men in her world, serves as a solid. Serving as a modern-day counterpart is the equally industrious Jeanne, who must face the ramifications of the actions of a mother she quickly realises she barely knew. Perhaps only the character of Simon, who really comes into his own in the final act of the film, is underused. Yet given the strength of the characterisations of the women in the film, who make all the tough decisions and face the even tougher consequences of the narrative, it should not come as a surprise that the initially reluctant and weak-willed Simon is unwilling to act until the truth is uncovered by his sister. Another significant character is the landscape, beginning in Montreal but largely based in Jordan, and is stunningly shot by Andre Turpin. Like the story, it is filled with terror, hardship, violence but also great and heartbreaking beauty.
The Reel Bits: A devastatingly beautiful film that will be discussed, and indeed should be discussed, long after you leave the cinema. Villeneuve continues to mark himself as one of the most important filmmakers of recent years, and his exploration of the complex histories of families is universally human.
Incendies was released in Australia on 21 April 2011 by Hopscotch Films.