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Christian and Muslim bullets and blood


Incendies (MA). Director: Denis Villeneuve. Starring: Lubna Azabal, Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin, Maxim Gaudette, Rémy Girard . 130 minutes

This Quebecois Oscar nominee (best foreign language film) is as intricately plotted as a mystery novel, keeps a critical eye on history and the causes and consequences of conflict, and possesses the mythical weight of a Tolkienesque quest story.

In this case, it is a quest for truth and understanding: adult twins Jeanne (Désormeaux-Poulin) and Simon (Gaudette) have been charged with gathering the strands of their dead mother Nawal's (Azabal) mysterious life. 

(Continues below)

Nuwal's will is heavy with penitent symbolism. She is to be buried in an unmarked grave, naked, face-down, her back to the world. The will instructs the twins to return to her homeland in the Middle East and deliver two envelopes: one to their father, the other to their brother. Only once this task has been fulfilled will she be worthy of an honourable burial.

Jeanne and Simon are perplexed: as far as they know, their father is dead, and they have no brother. They are infuriated by what they see as a final prank by an eccentric and emotionally distant mother. But Jeanne is coaxed by notary and family friend Jean (Girard) into accepting the mission.

Incendies discloses two accounts of history. One is pieced together by Jeanne and, later, Simon, as they visit pertinent locations from Nawal's life, rubbing at the grime on the pane of time and peering through the clean spots at the partially revealed picture beneath.

The other unfolds in a series of chronological flashbacks containing Nawal's tragic and harrowing biography, which is marred by the bullets and the blood of interreligious conflict. The roots both of her own personal formation and of Jeanne and Simon's origins lie among the ruins of this fraught history.

The two accounts seem not always to agree. But they are of course different perspectives on the same story. Ultimately they elucidate each other. Incendies is a gripping, intricate epic, whose themes are amplified by individually powerful dramatic sequences:

Residents of a Christian orphanage have their heads shaved by Muslim militants. The camera zooms in on one small boy, who stares into it with an expression of fierce defiance. The head-shaver forcibly tilts the boy's skull forward, but the gesture only intensifies his stare, now directed from beneath a lowered brow. 'Don't forget about me', the stare says, and it's both a clue for the audience and a threat to any who oppress him.

Jeanne meets with women from her mother's village. The natural French-speaker communicates in imperfect English via a local girl who translates into their Middle Eastern dialect. The women's disdain for Nawal has fermented over time but the reasons for it are transmitted only stiltedly to Jeanne across the gaps in language and culture. Tabooed truth is hard to come by, but it can be harder still to bear once it is known.

Nawal, disgraced and exiled from her Christian village for an affair with a Muslim man, conceals her crucifix and hitches a ride on a bus laden with Muslims. Shortly, the bus is halted by a squadron of bloodthirsty Christian militants. What ensues is a formative moment for Nawal, and, for the audience, one of Incendies' most powerful sequences. But it merely foreshadows greater horrors that lie in wait.

It seems every moment is imbued with a mystical core and mythical embellishments ('The Woman Who Sings' and 'Nihad Of May' are two mythical figures who emerge as key players in the mystery). So much so that even the film's overly contrived resolution contains a sense of predestination. 

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. He is a contributor to Kidzone, Inside Film and The Big Issue, and his articles and reviews have appeared in Melbourne's The Age and Brisbane's Courier-Mail. Follow Tim on Twitter

Topic tags: Incendies, Denis Villeneuve, Lubna Azabal, Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin, Maxim Gaudette, Quebec, Israel



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Existing comments

'Rubbing at the grime on the pane of time' - beautiful!

Thanks for this reflective meditation.

Barry G | 21 April 2011  

Your review has certainly aroused my interest to see this film Tim. Thank you.

DAVID HICKS | 21 April 2011  

We saw Incendies a few days ago, a true movie experience. Tom, your review is excellent and beautifully written: capturing the layers of human devastation; the relentless innate power of the story; the severely challenging by the emerging facts of our equanimity and comfort. Thank you for a second helping!
John Murphy

john murphy | 28 April 2011  

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