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Incendies (2010)

Pure mathematics is, by its nature, the academic pursuit of the unthinkable. Mathematicians live in a rarified atmosphere where mere arithmetic long ago faded into the distance behind them. Now they think about problems where we mere mortals would not even understand the questions. So whereas it would never occur to us to doubt that two + two = four, a pure mathematician might be forced to the conclusion that there are circumstances in which the numbers might not add up to the expected total. The answer all depends on the variables you have available to include in the calculation and how precisely you can define them.

 

In a war, for example, you might have winners and losers, killers and their victims, and so on. In one sense, this is defining a complex situation through simple pairs in binary opposition. Yet one might equally say that everyone in a war is a victim. Take a child, train him or her to become a soldier, and see how many he or she kills. You could say this child is a victim of the war just as much as anyone he or she wounds or kills. It all comes down to the initial definition of victim.

Lubna Azabal feels the despair of failing to save a life

 

Incendies (2010) is a film written and directed by Denis Villeneuve, based on a play written by Wajdi Mouawad. It was nominated in the category of Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in the 83rd Academy Awards, but failed to win. To come to any film knowing it has been rated so highly makes it difficult not to prejudice the quality. I admit to entering the cinema wondering why it had been nominated and looking for reasons why it failed to win. This latter is, of course, problematic because I’ve not seen the film that actually won. But then life is never as straightforward as you would like.

 

So, without spoilers, what’s this film about? It could not be easier to describe. A mother, Nawal Marwan (Lubna Azabal) struggles in a new country, Canada, to earn a living and support her twins. Although an arab speaker by birth, she has learned French and so does well as a lawyer’s secretary in Quebec. Indeed, the lawyer, Jean Lebel (Rémy Girard) treats her like family, caring what happens to the children as they grow up. The daughter, Jeanne Marwan (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) is a pure mathematician of great potential. The son, Simon Marwan (Maxim Gaudette) is temperamental and underachieving. One day, at a swimming pool, the mother falls into a semi-comatose state. Although she can whisper to people in hospital, this is the endgame and she dies soon afterwards. The lawyer calls the twins for a reading of the will and gives them news they find shocking — that their father is still alive and they have a brother they knew nothing about.

Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin realises her mother has just left

 

You can live with someone all your life and not know him or her. How or why should a mother have concealed the existence of another son? What circumstances led to the estrangement from the father of her children? This turns the film into a quest for all that was unsuspected. The daughter takes leave of absence from her university and travels to a generic Arab country where there has been sectarian violence between the Moslem and minority Christian communities. The first two-thirds of the film are therefore told as a dual narrative. We see the daughter retracing her mother’s life, with extensive flashbacks showing what actually happened to her mother. The final third shows the lawyer bringing the son from Quebec. The lawyer has a contact in this Arab country who is able to arrange for the son to meet the people who can put the final pieces in the jigsaw puzzle. In a patriarchal society, only the men can talk about some aspects of their culture and society.

 

Structurally, this makes the film interesting in its own right with sequences being labelled like the chapters in a book. It allows us the chance to begin peeling back the layers of the onion to see what’s underneath. Yet, as with all clichés, this requires some explanation. Let’s say you peel back one layer of an onion, and then another. You never get any closer to an answer because, even when there are no more layers left to peel, all you are left with is onion. Perhaps this explains the tears. Almost everyone who has ever cut into an onion knows it’s hard to peel it without shedding tears. We all know tragedy is an inevitable byproduct of sectarian violence. It begins with simple tit-for-tat reprisals and builds into a war of revenge. What could and should have been resolved through talking becomes insoluble until those fighting tire of killing each other. It is ever so when neighbour fights neighbour, because they forget friendship, and invent reasons to hate based on religion, politics or any other perceived differences. Worse, there’s never any redemptive quality implicit in the ending of conflict. Forgiveness does not come easily to the survivors. Hatred may persist for generations.

 

From this you will understand this is not an easy film to watch. There’s much cruelty and mindless killing implied and shown. In a way, some of the tension is defused because we know the mother survived and was able to start a new life in Canada. That does not mean she escaped the horror of what she had to live through. Such scars never heal. The best anyone can hope for is an accommodation with trauma that allows the chance to sleep without nightmares. Perhaps this mother was able to draw comfort from the twins and the lives they were able to fashion for themselves in peaceful Quebec. Or perhaps she was ambivalent about the twins. Who can say why the son seems to have had a difficult relationship with his mother.

Maxim Gaudette and Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin in the lawyer's office

 

I suppose you say a film is powerful when it moves your emotions. By that standard, this film is an extraordinary success. It reminds us of the cruelty one group of people may cause others in the name of religion. It gives us a practical insight into the consequences visited on individuals caught up in the larger struggle. In such situations, everyone is a victim in every sense of the word. The children of today go on a journey and, when they have reached the end, they have answers. Whether the answers make them better people or happier, who can say. Life itself is a journey and it does not end until death. These children still have a way to go before they die. That this film gives us such a perspective on life is a tribute to the initial play and script by Wajdi Mouawad and the skill of Denis Villeneuve as the director.

 

The way Incendies fits together when you look back and see a complete picture is intellectually pleasing. Everything is there from the first frames for those who have eyes to see. I must say a few words about the cast who, without exception, appear completely natural on screen. There’s no affectation or obvious acting. They inhabit their roles. Particular mention must be made of the two female leads. Lubna Azabal and Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin are outstanding. Lubna Azabal, in particular, seems to hold the screen. Whether in action or the few moments of stillness, she dominates those around her by the certainty of her inner convictions. It’s a memorable performance.

 

I’m glad to have experienced Incendies and, while it may not be in everyone’s comfort zone, I recommend it to all those who want to share in a family’s experiences of war. It’s harrowing at times, but there’s real inspiration in the indomitable courage of the mother who, even when there seems no hope, manages to sing a song of defiance.

 

  1. Gayle Hebbard
    February 12, 2012 at 5:08 pm

    Fantastic spellbinding movie. The actors are all superb. Very memorable.

    • February 13, 2012 at 10:13 am

      It was certainly one of the highlights of 2011.

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