Recently I reviewed the very good 2010 foreign language Oscar-winning film, “In a Better World.” Today, I am writing about “Incendies,” one of the other nominees, representing Canada, in the same Oscar category.
Side note: I have seen and reviewed four of the five 2010 foreign language Oscar nominees, which are all excellent. I have not yet watched “Above the Law,” which (as of this writing) is not in my local theater, on DVD or streaming online. You can read my reviews of the other films here: “Biutiful,” “Dogtooth” and “In a Better World.”
“Incendies” begins with young adult sister and brother (Jeanne and Simon) sitting across a desk listening to the reading of their mother’s last wishes. Narwal Marwan (their mother) recently died, and she has left some very specific instructions for her children. They are told how she wants to be buried, and they are asked to deliver some letters. The instructions confuse the siblings. Simon wants to have nothing to do with any of this. He wants to simply bury his mother so they can move on. But Jeanne chooses to respect her mother’s wishes, perhaps out of curiosity. She sets off on an exploration to the Middle East and into her mother’s past. By design , we never learn exactly which country in the Middle East where most of the action takes place. Eventually Simon joins Jeanne on the quest for answers. Please note that I am being deliberately vague about the plot here. I think “Incendies” is best viewed with very little before-hand knowledge. Just this warning: The film contains some disturbing violence and adult themes.
“Incendies” is amazingly directed and edited, wonderfully acted and well-written. The film is based on a stage play written by Wajdi Mouawad; the screenplay was written by Denis Villenuve (with Valerie Beaugrand-Champagne). Villenuve also directed the film. The cast includes Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin as Jeanne, Maxim Gaudette as Simon and Lubna Azabal as Nawal. All of the acting is excellent, and Azabal provides one of the most memorable performances in recent years. One can sometimes detect film dialogue which has evolved from a play. That’s not a bad thing necessarily, since stage plays are often smart and powerful. But here, I did didn’t detect a hint of staginess. The film feels natural and realistic, but also slightly melancholic.
“Incendies” is a quiet film, sparse in music and pomp. Though at times, it is as emotionally powerful as any film you will see. It’s also relatively long at 130 minutes, so it requires some sticktoitiveness. The story gradually works its way into your heart and mind, shifting between Nawal’s troubled past and the present as Jeanne and Simon look for answers. Chapters of the film are marked with foreboding red letters across the screen, which at first seem disconcerting but become welcome beacons. My criticism of the film is that some of it’s plot devices do not completely ring true to the end, but that’s not so bad. Some of the best movies contain slight inaccuracies or require leaps of faith from the audience. It’s easy to overlook here. The film offers messages about the senselessness of violence and misogyny and teaches us that a family’s past may not always be pretty. The finale is emotionally devastating.
Rating 3.5 out of 4 stars
2010, rated R, 130 minutes, Drama, Mystery, War