“Incendies” is a powerful film that eclipses the art of storytelling through time. It has levels of understanding and insight that are so sharp the audience was left silent and still.
It was no surprise that “Incendies” won the Oregon Audience Award for best feature film at The 34th Annual Portland International Film Festival this year. Over 35,000 attendees participated in the vote with a field of 88 feature presentations and 43 shorts from more than 40 countries competing for top prizes.
But it was “Incendies” that had a transformative, life-changing knock-out for the viewer. I recommend it as one of the best films you may possibly ever see.
A young dark-haired girl, Narwal Marwan, watches as her lover is executed by her brothers. As the gun is set to fire on her she is saved by her grandmother’s screech, commanding her grandsons to forget about killing their sister. The boy was enough.
French for fire, “Incendies” is a conflagration of injustice, extremism and passion.
The tinder box opened and the match struck, a blaze warms with a sequence of explosions that ends about twenty years later with a somber visit by Marwan’s twins to the executor of her will. He hands them each envelopes with separate requests, left by their mother, who asks one to find their father, who they thought was dead. The other she asks to find their brother, who they never knew existed.
Whether this is a story about international conflict or about our own interpersonal battles, the end of Marwan’s life journey can only be realized posthumously through her children. They are the ones left to exhume the truth and make the decision to stop the inferno of violence and hate … or not.
Marwan‘s sin, consorting with the sworn enemy of her community, brings shame upon her family. They, in turn, need to right this wrong through killing the suitor. However, it turns out that Marwan is pregnant. At birth the progeny of the love between the forbidden lovers is taken from her arms and given to an orphanage. The child is tattooed by the grandmother for family identification and Marwan vows to find him and take him back. A resultant series of act-and-react events fuels Marwan’s eventual suicidal act of terrorism.
One strand takes Marwan, played with effective detachment by Lubna Azabal, through war zones searching for her son. Alternate strands take her children, after her death, through similar property searching for their brother and father. An additional socio-political-religious strand documents Marwan’s witness of humanity’s senseless crimes based on affiliations and base human arrogance in the name of religion.
Caught up in this blaze of incongruent hypocrisy, Marwan ends up in a primitive prison, sequestered in a bathroom-sized stall for years, the eventual subject of sexual atrocity.
She is the victim and the extremist – but also the survivor.
Roger Ebert predicted “Incendies” would win the 2011 Academy Award for best foreign language film. Even against the eventual Oscar winner, “In a Better World,” the Portland International Film Festival audience voted “Incendies” as best feature film this year. “In a Better World” came in second.
Viewed on several different levels, Quebec director/writer Denis Villeneuve has said in interviews that he wanted the film to be apolitical. So even though it was set in the Middle East and filmed primarily in Jordan, and even though Mideast history buffs will try to conjure out dates and battles, its political skirmishes and ideological clashes are supposed to be fictional.
However, what Villeneuve desired and successfully accomplished was exposing conflicting elements of human character. The result is so powerful and spiritually imperative that its core invokes an ancient Greek tragedy in ultimate proportion, reminding us that in the end, any chance of happiness or peace rests with acceptance, if not total forgiveness.
Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
Screenplay by: Denis Villeneuve in collaboration with Valérie Beaugrand-Champagne
Based on the stage play by: Wajdi Mouawad
Cast: Lubna Azabal, Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin, Maxim Gaudette, Rémy Girard
Rating: US = R; UK = TBD
Running time: 130 minutes
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