Polarizing stigmas & emblems of love

Incendies may not have come home from the Oscars with an award, but the story is a potent one of tremendous magnitude, narrating a woman’s backstory in order to unravel her dying requests

Lubna Azabal is captivating in the lead role of Nawal Marwan
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Lubna Azabal is captivating in the lead role of Nawal Marwan

4 out of 5 stars

Movie: Incendies

Starring: Lubna Azabal, Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin and Maxim Gaudette

Director: Denis Villeneuve (Polytechnique)

Duration: 130 mins.

Incendies is a great film that’s a simple and conventional story hurdled into a narrative of tremendous Greek magnitude. It envisions family as a stigma, something rather polarizing and an emblem of our hearts.

We are asked who Nawal Marwan (Lubna Azabal) was and why did she never communicate with her children until the reading of her will? At first, her twin children Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) and Simon (Maxim Gaudette who played The Killer in Villeneuve’s previous Polytechnique) become petrified and infuriated as they learn of a precipitated family secret that could tear them apart or force them to join together.

When Nawal sends her twin children out to find their lost brother (who can be identified with three markings on the back of his right heel), it seems illogical. If the twins were never told they had a brother why would he be important now? The rest of the film explains that. It narrates Nawal’s backstory in order to unravel the method to her dying requests. Incendies, like Sophie’s Choice, is meant to fathom a woman’s enigma when the option to do so would be to look at her past.

The narrative is fractured, divided into “episodes” that are rendered through red titles. It gives the film some direction and pace and though Incendies wavers from the past to the present, both mesh together like one. These are family roots intersecting each other. It is episodic, but it doesn’t feel disjointed, though the narrative is quite so. Villeneuve paves the story in a way that the twins’ discoveries are ours, embellished through the “action”—by which I don’t mean explosions, but the tragic, endearing recollection on Nawal.

We cannot for a second detest Nawal for her inability to unite her family. Her past experiences were wretched.

Nawal survives much on luck and her religion. She is Christian (though we are not sure of her heritage). She hitches a ride on a Muslim bus pretending to be Islamic and barely escapes the bus’ destruction by Christian rebels. That cues the famous shot: a dejected Nawal staring at the ground, while her destructive past is personified through a blazing bus.

More panache follows. Accompanied by a fantastic tracking shot of Nawal’s bag, she pulls out a gun and kills a Christian leader in his estate (Canadian directors have a fetish with tracking shots that suggest a gun grasped in someone’s hand—incentive: Paul Haggis’ Crash).

She is sent to prison for 15 years, where she is tortured, raped and sings—not out of happiness, but to drown out the battle cries and perhaps her disturbed thoughts.

If we run into a few problems with Incendies, one is how the narrative is occasionally frayed by the audience running too far ahead of Jeanne and Simon. By the time Nawal’s story switches back to them, their dialogue sequences become redundant.

What amazed me about Incendies is how it tells a story that could happen to anyone in the Middle East at this time, but makes the odyssey of Nawal a true magnificent endeavor. She is confronted by religion, death, imprisonment, civil war, and the twins must find the truth within these moments.

Nawal is the most credible, fascinating character in this movie despite her initial nebulousness. This is an incredible story about giving justice to a mother and by the end, her family.

There are some moments in Incendies that felt contrived and transparent. The idling notary Jean Lebel (Rémy Girard from The Barbarian Invasions) who says he represents much but really doesn’t and the forced interview Simon has with a warlord. I wish this moment was dramatized through the point of view of the lost brother. That scene required more “personal” immersion instead of passive dialogue.

There is nothing wrong with the conclusion. It is moving, shocking, maybe a little too fundamental. It makes Incendies a real, if typical Greek film about family ties and odd ends that result in startling Oedipal revelations. However, I was amazed to see a Canadian film grace the screen with such scope and assurance. It negates that absurd prejudice that the last great Canadian film was Nanook of the North.

It’s hard to believe Incendies was adapted from Wajdi Mouawad’s Scorched: a play. Not a moment of Incendies is stagey and never does the acting render theatrical. Villeneuve frames the passionate scenes in long shots to displace the melodrama and create a detached chill of stark intrigue.

Incendies is playing at the Kingston Film Festival Friday, March 4 at 7 p.m. and Saturday, March 5 at Noon. See ‘Film Fest Films’ for festival details.

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