13 August 2011 | DICK STEEL
A Nutshell Review: Incendies
The film begins in sweeping slow motion, centered around a harsh cemented premises with a bunch of boys undergoing the shaving of their hair ala military fashion, with the camera centered on one boy possessing this crazed looking eyes, before cutting to Canada where twins Jeanne and Simon Marwan (Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin and Maxim Gaudette respectively) arrive at a notary's office to accept the will of their recently deceased mother Nawal (Lubna Azabal), where they are left with letters to deliver to a father and brother that they do not know. In the meantime, they are to bury their mother in a certain strange way until their quest has been completed, with the notary Jean Lebel (Remy Girard), Nawal's boss the last few years, ensuring that her last will and testament is completed the way it was intended.
Incendies, based upon the play Scorched written by Wajdi Mouawad and adapted for the screen by director Denis Villeneuve, was this year's Best Foreign Language Film nominee from Canada, and there's every reason why it was a nomination well deserved. Set against a mystery to be unraveled so slowly, bringing together seemingly disparate events together in shocking fashion by the time we're through, the narrative is split into two different timelines, with the current one being the twins' journey to an unnamed Middle Eastern country in search for clues to their unknown father and brother, while with each milestone achieved of sorts, we get to see a flashback to the time of their mother, brought up in a harsh environment involving the staining of family honour, as well as religious zealots and militants who set her off in a tale of an avenging angel, and sacrifice.
And the story sprawls in many directions, though with Villeneuve always having an assured hand in not having this fall into melodramatic terms nor have any wasted scenes, highlighting issues that still exist to this very day involving hatred, revenge and forgiveness, but not before laying down a number of surprises that will shake you to the core especially when the mysterious equation finally gets solved – you may get a hint of what's to come, but this got handled so expertly without being verbatim, that it accentuates and compounds the myriad of complex emotions felt by all the characters involved.
With sweeping cinematography that's achingly beautiful to gaze at, one of the best scenes involve the brutal, cold blooded mass murder where militants spray countless of rounds into a packed bus, culminating in that shot of a burning bus shrouded in thick black smoke against an endless sandy environment, with Nawal finally snapping into making a decision to take matters into her own hands from then on. Between the two stories, perhaps it is Nawal's painful journey that makes this compelling viewing, from having her lover forcefully and terminally separated from her by family during her teens, then her volunteering and sacrifice leading to imprisonment and ill treatment within as punishment. What she did as part of reconciliation is in part a masterstroke in inflicting inexplicable pain in return to her perpetrator, is what made this film a winner, although it will stun you into silence well after the end credits roll from the devastation the narrative left in its wake.
The other half of the narrative deals with Jeanne and Simon's journey to dig through unwritten laws, and reluctance of tightly knit communities that prefer to keep the status quo and not dwell and reopen wounds inflicted from their collective shameful past, some in denial, while others happy to have seen a more favourable outcome from Nawal's hardships. It is this piecing together of the mystery like an investigative drama that makes Incendies unique, and what more, Radiohead also features in the soundtrack – strange but true, and very powerful if you ask me.
Comparing the ratings between this film at M18 and Womb at R21 reveals what the censors allow and not allow when dealing with more mature themes, likely centered around the intention of its more controversial scenes. It's anyone's guess why was was given the highest rating possible, and the other one rung lower, given that both actually didn't have anything explicit, except perhaps one was used as an unintentional weapon of torture and destruction in the psychological sense, while the other was a love story gotten out of control! Still, for its strong story and excellent production values, Incendies becomes that must watch film in 2011, especially during this season of noisy summer action blockbusters that absolutely don't resonate as much as this film. Highly recommended!