Movie Review: Incendies
The Charlotte Observer
The credibility of “Incendies,” whose French-language title means “scorched,” depends on whether you can accept a coincidence that towers over most movie coincidences like the Empire State Building above a hot dog cart.
If you can swallow it, you may well believe “Incendies” deserved its Oscar nomination as best foreign film this year. If not, you may wish writer-director Denis Villeneuve had found some other way to play on our heartstrings. The film had so much power up to that point that I left shaking my head over both man’s inhumanity and this odd shift in storytelling.
Villeneuve adapted a 2005 play by fellow Quebecois Wajdi Mouawad. (Valérie Beaugrand-Champagne is credited as “script consultant,” whatever that means.)
The story is deliberately unspecific about details; it doesn’t even say which Middle Eastern country is stuck in a civil war. (Perhaps it doesn’t matter, as wars declared and undeclared have marred that region for a hundred years.)
The authors care more about making us feel characters’ pain and bewilderment, while one generation suffers in flashbacks and another exposes secrets in the present.
Siblings Jeanne and Simon Marwan (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin and Maxim Gaudette) have been raised in Canada by their late mother, Nawal (Lubna Azabal). Now they listen to her will in disbelief: She wants to be buried in an unmarked grave and forgotten forever, unless they deliver letters she has written to a brother they never knew they had and the father she never identified or described.
Simon thinks this is idiotic, though the notary who employed Nawal (Rémy Girard) insists her wishes be carried out. So Jeanne sets out with scarcely a clue. She begins in her mother’s native village, where Nawal is remembered decades later as the shameless hussy who became pregnant by a political refugee from another religion. The trail then leads through a series of bruising flashbacks to a present that finally makes some kind of healing possible.
The story might have worked as well without that stick-in-the-craw coincidence, which was inserted to maximize the horrors of Nawal’s past. The authors spare neither Muslims nor Christians, all of whom are Arabs locked in perpetual, pointless enmity. The healing of Nawal’s family reminds us how urgently the families, tribes and factions on all sides need the same kind of spiritual recuperation.
The movie never feels long, partly because of Azabal’s terrific performance. (You may have seen her in the Oscar-nominated “Paradise Now,” where her character was the conscience of two would-be suicide bombers.) Azabal conveys a lot through all the flashbacks of abuse and distress, remaining an individual instead of a faceless victim.