Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Mar 09, 2011 2:00 pm 
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"Fire," "burnings," a strange family history and a parable of sectarian war

When you watch the French Canadian director Denis Villeneuve's Oscar-nominated film Incendies -- and it is worth watching – prepare for something long, literally dark, and shocking. The film, adapted from a play by the celebrated young Canadian-Lebanese playwright Wajdi Mouwawad but expanded into a film rich in Middle East location (and in Arabic as well as French dialogue) delves deeply into the hidden past of a family of Lebanese origin. A mother from Lebanon, Nawal Marwan (Lubna Azabal) dies at 60. Her twin son Simon (Maxim Gaudette) and daughter Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin ) go before a notary for whom their mother also worked, Jean Lebel (Rémy Girard) and they receive instructions in the form of two sealed letters, one for a brother and one for a father. This is incredible news for the twins. They thought their father died a heroic death and they knew nothing of a brother. Nawal also requests that she be buried naked in the ground, face down, without a coffin, until the letters are delivered. Simon is angered by all this and rejects it. Jeanne wants to comply with their mother's wishes.

What follows intermixes flashbacks to the early life of Nawal with sequences about Jeanne's quest, which Simon eventually joins. For reasons not entirely clear to me, the name "Lebanon" is never mentioned, though it is clear that violent fighting between Christians and Muslims and a country where educated Arabic-speaking people also tend to speak French mark the setting as Lebanese. (Actual location shooting was mostly done in Jordan.) Here it is meant to be a fictional country called "Foad," though it could still have been universal, at least for countries of long war and savage factional conflict, without the fiction that it was not what it plainly is. Rape, torture, genocide and dislocation dominate this world, whose distance from the experience of Jeanne and Simon we can only guess at. Incendies is powerful and absorbing and while the images of war are familiar from many films, what holds them together is the detective-story trajectory that we cannot reveal and is a discovery even Nawal herself does not come to until shortly before her death.

In flashbacks to her decades-earlier life we see Nawal watch her lover shot in front of her; then give birth to a child who's immediately taken from her; later become the sole survivor of a bus shot up by Christian militiamen; still later be imprisoned for many years and repeatedly raped. It's all a bit much, but it's so stunningly staged and shot that you rarely question it. You only wish the two siblings investigating their mother's secret, violent past were more interesting or more involved.

One of the first flashback sequences reveals what the twins will only realize later: that the heroic father who died in a moment of strife, a Muslim refugee despised by Nawal's Christian siblings, was actually the father of their older brother, not them, and that older brother was taken away from Nawal because born out of wedlock, but tattooed with three dots on the heel so she might be able to recognize and find him again some day. Those dots are duly connected. It might be better if they weren't.

More flashbacks show Nawal going in search of her lost son, sent to a Christian orphanage burnt in reprisal by Muslim militias, but the orphans were saved -- somewhere. Nawal volunteers with a Muslim militia in hopes of finding the boy, and is jailed, for 15 years, where she is known as "the woman who sings" and is so resilient no cruelty, including rape, causes her to crack. Informants' accounts to Jeanne alternate with images of Nawal herself. I couldn't help being reminded of Ana Ularu, in the Romanian film Outbound, just seen (also in the ND/NF series), who also is a spare, stony-faced young woman in search of a young boy who's been put in an orphanage. But Nawal must endure greater tests.

As Peter Debruge explains in his Variety review, Villeneuve "excises entire blocks of text" in the transfer from play to film. Instead there are many striking images, often in a soft semidarkness that underlines the mystery the twins are unraveling. Debruge further suggests that Villeneuve lets us draw our own conclusions and speak our own words where the playwright Mouwawad spelled everything out in long monologues. Whatever one may think of the thorny, tragic and tendentious plot whose final revelation strains credulity, and however excessive the measured pace of the 130-minute film is at times, Villeneuve has realized the play on film in a bold and richly cinematic manner and his accomplishment has already gained festival kudos and the justified admiration of cinephiles.

Incendies could have been a better film if it allowed itself to breathe and curbed some of its drawn-out and less necessary sequences. Perhaps it could have taken a moment to smile, yea, even in the world of near-biblical suffering. Ultimately the source play shakes you up while lecturing you and the film does the same. One is fascinated by the plot twists and can see their poetic justice without consenting to believe them all. Some of the truths of war and sectarianism might ring truer if they were not all so neatly tied into the detective-story search for family origins. I think often in this kind of context of Claire Denis's2004 The Intruder and Arnaud des Pallières 2003 Adieu, multi-level films about family and wrongdoing whose failures to connect all the dots make them richer and more memorable and perhaps more truly cinematic. Perhaps only a disturbing and never-explained opening sequence in Incendies of boys having their head shaved to the tune of Radiohead's "You and Whose Army" has that quality of boldly evoking inexplicable but dangerously real worlds.

Director Villeneuve has thrice before been put forth as Canada’s pick in the foreign language category — for his first three films: Cosmos, August 32nd on Earth and Maelström — but has never won the award (this year it went to Danish director Susanne Bier's In a Better World). Incendies was also shown at Venice, Telluride, Toronto and Sundance. With it he may have moved up a notch as an international artist and even this time a more commercially viable one. Incendies goes into limited US release April 22, 2011.

Seen and reviewed as part of New Directors/New Films, the series co-presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and MoMA, New York March 22-April 3, 2011.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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