Incendies. Written by Denis Villeneuve, based on a play by Wajdi Mouawad. Directed by Denis Villeneuve . In French, English, and Arabic.
It’s probably safe to say that, after more than half a century, the prospect of “peace in the Middle East” has become as chimerical a vision as “universal religious tolerance” or “feeding the children”. In other words, though a manifestly worthy goal, it’s not anything we should expect to actually witness.
This is not because the problem is insoluble. After all, this particular knot was tied by people and can be disentangled by people too. Instead, it has become one of those quandaries where continuing to tolerate the intolerable is less frightening than any conceivable solution. Those in a position to achieve it don’t want peace—not really. The obstacle is no less simple, or profound, than that.
Denis Villeneuve’s Incendies (in English, “destroyed by burning”) is a powerful depiction of how people can try to live with the intolerable, attempt to discount it and make it routine, but can succeed only up to a point. Upon the death of their Arab Christian mother Nawal (Lubna Azabal), French-Canadian twins Jeanne and Simone (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin and Maxim Gaudette) learn the contents of her will, which tasks them to find and contact their father and brother back in the old country—relatives that, until that moment, they didn’t know was alive (the father) or even existed (the brother). Simone dismisses the testament as the ramblings of a crazy old woman. Jeanne takes up the task of solving the mystery, traveling to a Lebanon that is only beginning to recover from decades of Muslim-on-Christian-on-Jewish violence.
There are too many potential spoilers in summarizing the script by Villeneuve, based on Wajdi Mouawad’s play, to reveal much more. Suffice it to say that what Jeanne she learns about her family history, about her mother’s surprisingly active role in this particular side-show of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is appalling and irresistibly absorbing, thanks in large part to a haunting performance by the Belgian-born Azabal. This is the best movie of its kind this writer can remember since Milcho Manchevski’s similarly powerful Before the Rain (1994), which was likewise set in a historical context of almost hopeless, chronically cyclic violence.
Granted, some of the twists in the story, as relate to the loyalties of the characters, are too sketchily depicted to be plausible. Villeneuve also withholds too much information about the relevant history to make this genuinely comprehensible to the casual viewer. I believe the name “Lebanon” is never actually uttered in Incendies. Perhaps just seeing the cedar tree on the flag, the French street signs, and the spectacle of Christians and Muslims slaughtering each other, is enough key information for most Canadians. For the two-thirds of Americans who, according to a recent Zogby poll, can’t even find Iraq and Afghanistan on a map, such circumstantial details aren’t enough. But that is perhaps more our problem than the film’s.
None of these quibbles make Incendies anything less than superb. I saw it with a friend who thought its final, eye-popping revelation was perhaps one shock too many. I won’t name it here, except to say that I disagree. There is no realization of horror quite as effective the one that is bred into our very bones, that we understand we carry around with us no matter how far we try to run away. Like a bullet lodged too close to the heart to cut out, this story will stick with you for a long time.
© 2011 Nicholas Nicastro