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Roger Ebert, rogerebert.com
It's messy, overlong, and a touch
melodramatic, but those flaws pale before Incendies' impressive acting and
devastating emotional impact. --Rotton Tomatoes
Adapted from the 2003 play by Wajdi Mouawad,
twins Jeanne and Simon leave Canada for the Middle East to fulfill their
mother’s final wish to trace their family heritage.
the death of their mother, twins in Montreal are called to the office of her
employer. She had gone to work for him some 20 years ago after escaping
sectarian violence and rage in a nation not unlike Lebanon.
The mother left for her children, they learn, two
letters. Jeanne (Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin) is asked to give hers to the father
they never knew. Simon (Maxim Gaudette) is told to give his to a brother they
didn't know they had.
This is a plot for a thriller, really, and
Denis Villeneuve's Oscar-nominated "Incendies" doesn't shy away from that truth. But
it wants to be much more than a thriller and succeeds in demonstrating how
senseless and futile it is to hate others because of their religion. Most people
do not choose their religions but have them forced upon themselves by birth, and
the lesson of "Incendies" is that an
accident of birth is not a reason for hatred.
The heroine who comes to this conclusion is the
author of the two letters, Nawal (Lubna Azabal), the twins'
mother. Jeanne travels to the Middle East to carry out her
mother's wishes. Simon stays resentfully in Canada until later
in the story. In flashbacks spurred by Jeanne's meetings and conversations, we
learn of Nawal's early life. Born a
Christian, she fell in love with a Muslim. This was impossible for both of them
in that time and place. It led her on a romantic, religious and political
odyssey, and inspired her to do unthinkable things.
All about her, others were also doing the unthinkable. People who were not murderers in their nature killed others and
justified it, on both sides, in the names of their gods. And when enough people
had died, they no longer needed their gods, because they sought personal or
tribal revenge. A season of murder by fanatics broadened into
years of retribution by bystanders who take up their guns. Villeneuve is especially chilling when he shows young adolescents
with rifles, killing others their own age when neither shooter nor target is old
enough to understand the gift of life.
The plot of "Incendies" is based
on a play by Wajdi Mouawad, described as consisting of poetic
monologues. The screenplay by Villeneuve refashions the action in a way more
suited to a film, where it is often better to show something than to evoke its
mental image. The underlying story here could with a few adjustments be a noir
set in any country, taking its choice of all the sad justifications men find for
In its Middle Eastern setting, the film takes on a contemporary feel, and the
scenes of battle, rape and torture are concise and pitiless. The performance of
Lubna Azabal, who plays Nawal over a range of
years, is never less than compelling; she helps us understand in a visceral way
why she acts as she does — as she must — under the circumstances she is unlucky
enough to inherit. And Villeneuve's writing and direction do an effective job of
making clear events that might have become cloudy. The
specific way, in cryptic dialogue, that he reveals his film's shocking secret is
The film's ending, which you will not learn from me, is stunning
in its impact. I am not sure it quite works out in terms of strict logic, but
logic can be forgotten when the purpose is revelation. And that
revelation, when it comes, lays bare the pathos of "justified" murder and the
pathology of cruelty.
I am left with a question you might want to ask yourself after seeing the
film: What was the mother's purpose in leaving the letters for her children?
Yes, we can see, they deserve to know the truth about their father and their
brother. She could have told them — either in life, or for that matter, in the
letters. By sealing the letters, she assigns them a mission that could easily
have failed. If they had not found the recipients, they would not have learned
the truth. Then what purpose did the letters serve?
Well, of course they provided the motive for Jeanne's journey, and later for
Simon's. They're essentially MacGuffins. That's why I'm not so bothered by the
device. A MacGuffin is a way of setting a story into motion, and "Incendies" tells a shocking one.
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