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A bona fide masterpiece. As simple as that. It is ironic that one of
the best films about the Middle East conflict, and specifically the
tragic civil war in Lebanon, should be made by a Canadian film maker.
Incendies is based on a play but it feels as though it has been adapted
from a great literary work. In fact there is no specific mention of any
country in the film but no one can be in any doubt that the unnamed
country is Lebanon.
A Canadain-Lebanese woman dies in Canada and in her will she leaves two letters to her twin son & daughter. One is to be delivered to their brother (whom they did not know existed) and the other to their father (whom they had presumed dead). To find these people they have to travel to Lebanon to unravel the mysterious past of their deceased mother. As we follow their search, flash backs slowly reveal to us key moments in the life of their mother.
There are extremely powerful and unforgettable images and scenes in Incendies. Suffice to say that even if you have no interest in the history of the Middle East, this film will capture your attention from the start and grips you right till the end. It is the third great film (and arguably the best)that I've seen on this topic after Waltz with Bashir and Lebanon. All of these are essential viewing.
When people watch the Oscars, they don't usually care about the Best
Foreign Film nominees. Incendies provides so many reasons why people
should actually get to see those nominees at all costs. Incendies is
the kind of film that one walks away from feeling emotionally drained,
one where it stays in the viewer's mind for days on end. Like an
intense personal experience, it takes a lot to come to grips with the
film's story, a moving plot full of twists and catharsis. At the New
Directors/New Films Festival in New York, at which I saw this last
night, Denis Villeneuve explained that he has made four films in
Canada, but this is the first one to be released in America. Right now,
I see no reason why Villeneuve, or any of the actors for that matter,
shouldn't have a great future ahead of them.
Based on the play Scorched by Wajdi Mouawad, Incendies follows a non-linear plot that spans two generations. In the present day, Jeanne and Simon are twins who have lost their mother, Nawal. Nawal has stipulated in her will that Jeanne and Simon must return an envelope to the brother they didn't know existed who is currently living in a fictional Middle Eastern country. Only then can the twins give Nawal a proper burial. Jeanne feels obligated to return the letter, so she goes to the Middle East, only to realize some of Nawal's nastiest secrets. As Jeanne uncovers more about Nawal, the viewer is shown Nawal's story. The film builds up to an unforgettable ending that is sure to rock any viewer.
Incendies already had great source material. I've praised the plot enough, but one thing I must add is that the play is apparently four hours long, according to Villeneuve. It's impressive that this movie succeeds so nicely because I can't imagine that anything was cut. But to back up that source material, there's some really great acting. The entire cast plays their parts with such an emotional vigor that it seems impossible that this work of art wasn't autobiographical.
Furthermore, Villeneuve has made a film that relies on great filmmaking to impact the viewer. The cinematography is beautifully bland, surely a nod to some of the deserts in the Lebanon- like land where the movie takes place. Color scheme is also used to Villeneuve's advantage to show the parallels between Nawal and Jeanne's lives. Villeneuve seems to love working with extended zoom shots that shock the viewer with their overwhelmingly long silences. Why Villeneuve didn't receive critical acclaim (in America, at least) before Incendies is a mystery.
There are many movies about the Middle East. Some have failed miserably in their attempts to strike an emotional chord with critics and viewers alike (Redacted, Rendition), but others have been extremely successful (The Hurt Locker, Lebanon). Incendies could very well be one of the best films ever made about the conflicts in the Middle East. It has its flaws which keep it from being a masterpiece (maybe it could've lost five or ten minutes), but it is that rare type of film that really resonates beyond the initial viewing. Hopefully, Incendies will be remembered for years to come as the little, brilliant film that spawned the great fame of Denis Villeneuve.
I had the pleasure of attending a screening of Incendies at the
Telluride film festival and was absolutely shattered by it. This
meticulously crafted film was my favorite of the festival.
Stuff happens and you'll be like NO WAY and then the film goes even further and you'll be like WHOA OKAY WHAT and then even further and you'll be like OH MY GOD and then even further still and you'll be like HOW CAN THIS BE HAPPENING OH MY GOD PLEASE and then it'll just keep going even further and further and further and by the end of the film you'll just be a steamy, shattered mess like I was.
Characters and events throughout are depicted with the subtlety and prowess of a master filmmaker. I don't want to spoil anything, but there were numerous moments in the screening that I attended when the audience was vocally reacting to moments on screen that were extremely visceral and affecting.
Beautiful, powerful film.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
"Incendies (Scorched)" opened in town this Friday, just days before it
made the short list of nominees for Best Foreign Film for this year's
Academy Awards. It played in the Vancouver International Film Festival
2010, but I missed it then.
Fortunately, it received theatrical distribution; this devastating film on the horrors of conflict and its enormous human costs simply must be seen. Denis Villeneuve's searing work, his fourth feature, is based on the celebrated play of the same name by Montreal native and artistic director of the French Theatre at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa Wajdi Mouawad. While there is no doubting the immediacy and impact it must have had as a piece of theatre, "Incendies" benefits from the transition to the larger canvas of the big screen, appropriate for the epic themes and emotional conflagrations it tackles.
When their mother dies and her will is read, twins Jeanne and Simon Marwan are stumped by its bizarre burial instructions. Nawal Marwan states that she must be interred naked and facing away from the sun in an unmarked grave, until the two letters she has left with the family notary are delivered on her behalf. One is addressed to the father the twins believed dead, the second to a son whose existence comes as a complete surprise to them. The will makes the twins realize that they did not know their mother at all. They have not had an easy relationship with her, and are understandably reluctant to comply with her terms.
The daughter Jeanne moved away and found refuge in the abstract realms of pure mathematics. Her sibling Simon, who remained at home, had the more complicated relationship because he dealt daily with Nawal's strangeness. Jeanne agrees to deliver the letter that was left to her, and embarks on an odyssey of discovery, in search of the father she has never known. Later, she convinces Simon to join her.
Although the Middle Eastern country is never named in the film, Wajdi Mouawad ascribes the inspiration for his play to Soha Becharra, a woman who was imprisoned for six years in Khiam, southern Lebanon. In an interview with the Montreal Gazette, he explained "For me, the success of this play and the film is a way to give back some life to a woman whose life was taken away from her." The cinematic endeavor is hugely, powerfully successful: as Jeanne scours an alien land for clues of her mother's past, we see Nawal's tough life in flashback in the same locations that her daughter visits for the first time. Sectarian strife, tribal and religious warfare, family blood feuds, and honor killings have been the blight of the Middle East and areas as far as Afghanistan and what is now Pakistan, and parts of Africa. Bloodshed and violence have been a way of life; each side claims to be justified in killing to avenge earlier injustices. While humankind has not lost its baser urgeswe just have to recall the recent incident of the young Afghani woman whose nose was hacked off, or the countless rapes in present day DR Congothe film is a plea for reconciliation and forgiveness to bring about the much needed change.
Nawal barely escapes an honor killing due to her unwed pregnancy, gives up her baby son for adoption, and spends the rest of her life looking for this lost child. Along the way, she takes sides in the violence and is imprisoned for fifteen years for shooting a political leader. Upon her release, she begins life anew in Canada with her infant twins, the outcome of brutal rape at the hands of a torturer. Regardless of the change in geography, she remains haunted by the past and her unending quest for her lost child. How does one look for reparation and justice, when the perpetrators frequently flee the country of their misdeeds and seek asylum elsewhere? As she has not kept her word to her son to return to him, she feels unworthy of a proper burial. A character in the film wisely observes that death always leaves its traces, and Jeanne and Simon finally get to know their mother from the relics of her life.
The Belgian actress Lubna Azabal's heroic performance brings Nawal to awe-inspiring Brechtian life. Undefeated by each dehumanizing blow, she stoically navigates a war-crazed world devoid of any sense, her driving force is the need to reunite with her son. Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin and Maxim Gaudette do excellent work as the siblings who gradually begin to understand their mother. Rémy Girard and Allen Altman, playing the Canadian and Middle Eastern notaries respectively, guide the siblings through their search, while Abdelghafour Elaaziz makes an impact in the small but important role of Abou Tarek the torture specialist. The rest of the characters are brought to life by a talented cast of unknown actors; in their hands, even the smallest roles acquire great significance. Denis Villeneuve's film honors the stories of these people by rigorously avoiding directorial excesses. Events and stories this powerful do not require embellishment, and Villeneuve's spare, dispassionate directorial style maximizes impact.
Someone remarked that "Incendies" is the closest contemporary approximation of Greek tragedy, and I agree with this assessment: the crimes and consequences are universal and timeless, and if a film holds up a mirror to question our capacity for barbarism, it is reason to applaud. Regardless of the outcome at the Academy Awards, "Incendies" is a major achievement for Canadian cinema.
Denis Villeneuve has created nothing less than a masterpiece. This film
is revealing a great Director, especially when given an original story
with such powerful dimensions.
Despite being skeptical as first of the film being shot in Jordan, when dealing with the very specific, multidimensional Lebanese drama, the geographic distance with the land of Lebanon is detaching the film from the strict reality of the place and taking it to whole other level of significance. Jordan's landscape especially with the film's photography, are somewhat surrealistic, as if the story was taking place in a deep level of the region's sub-conscious.
Villeneuve has managed to delicately craft a story with dimensions that a human mind in its normal condition is not prepared to understand and confront. And yet these things did happen, many times during the war and retelling them is a very not an easy task. Actually a quasi impossible one and yet Villeneuve did it.
This has to be the film representing Canada at the Oscars. And it will win.
This is a superb film. Best film of the year in my estimation bar none.
This exceptional Canadan film should easily win best Foreign film at
Directing, photography, cinematography, casting, acting all outstanding. The film also has something to say on the nature of hate and violence.
Unfortunately this wonderful film will neither be seen nor appreciated by a wide audience.
Denis Villeneuve has created a fabulous film. He has done an immense job taking this from novel to the screen.
This film is extraordinary on just about every level. The script is
terrific, the actors are perfect, the direction and cinematography are
all you could hope for. I recommend it without hesitation.
Anyone who has seen any of Villeneuve's previous work--or Andre Turpin's Zigrail--knows that these filmmakers have bodies of work that are almost without peer in contemporary cinema world-wide and are unparallelled in the history of Canadian cinema (until seeing Incendies, Maelstrom was my favourite Canadian film). Incendies does not betray that "legacy". You should absolutely see it.
In a film as stunning as this one it's odd to single out one aspect, but I must say that Lubna Azabal's performance is among the best I've ever seen. Though I've watched a few films that she's been in in the past, she never really stood out for me. She is devastatingly good in this picture.
I do hope that this film gets submitted to the AMPAS for Oscar selection as it is definitely the best film I've seen this year and a shoe-in for the foreign picture Oscar.
My only complaint about the film was the use of music by Radiohead, which took me out of the film each time it played. The rest of the music cues were spot-on and quite excellent, but Thom Yorke's voice belonged nowhere near this film.
During the reading of the will of their mother's, a twin brother and
sister learn of some unusual last wishes. Amongst other requests, two
envelopes need to be delivered to respectively the father of the two
and a brother whom are both unknown. The quest leads the twins through
the Middle East where they slowly learn of the horrific tales which is
the life history of their late mother.
The movie tells a very graphic but endearing story, perfectly shot and acted allowing the viewer to get fully immersed into the journey and findings of the twins. Through flashbacks we learn about the hardship of the mother and, eventually, the fate of the father and brother. As a treat, there is a great twist at the end which is really the icing on the cake.
The film begins in sweeping slow motion, centered around a harsh
cemented premises with a bunch of boys undergoing the shaving of their
hair ala military fashion, with the camera centered on one boy
possessing this crazed looking eyes, before cutting to Canada where
twins Jeanne and Simon Marwan (Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin and Maxim
Gaudette respectively) arrive at a notary's office to accept the will
of their recently deceased mother Nawal (Lubna Azabal), where they are
left with letters to deliver to a father and brother that they do not
know. In the meantime, they are to bury their mother in a certain
strange way until their quest has been completed, with the notary Jean
Lebel (Remy Girard), Nawal's boss the last few years, ensuring that her
last will and testament is completed the way it was intended.
Incendies, based upon the play Scorched written by Wajdi Mouawad and adapted for the screen by director Denis Villeneuve, was this year's Best Foreign Language Film nominee from Canada, and there's every reason why it was a nomination well deserved. Set against a mystery to be unraveled so slowly, bringing together seemingly disparate events together in shocking fashion by the time we're through, the narrative is split into two different timelines, with the current one being the twins' journey to an unnamed Middle Eastern country in search for clues to their unknown father and brother, while with each milestone achieved of sorts, we get to see a flashback to the time of their mother, brought up in a harsh environment involving the staining of family honour, as well as religious zealots and militants who set her off in a tale of an avenging angel, and sacrifice.
And the story sprawls in many directions, though with Villeneuve always having an assured hand in not having this fall into melodramatic terms nor have any wasted scenes, highlighting issues that still exist to this very day involving hatred, revenge and forgiveness, but not before laying down a number of surprises that will shake you to the core especially when the mysterious equation finally gets solved you may get a hint of what's to come, but this got handled so expertly without being verbatim, that it accentuates and compounds the myriad of complex emotions felt by all the characters involved.
With sweeping cinematography that's achingly beautiful to gaze at, one of the best scenes involve the brutal, cold blooded mass murder where militants spray countless of rounds into a packed bus, culminating in that shot of a burning bus shrouded in thick black smoke against an endless sandy environment, with Nawal finally snapping into making a decision to take matters into her own hands from then on. Between the two stories, perhaps it is Nawal's painful journey that makes this compelling viewing, from having her lover forcefully and terminally separated from her by family during her teens, then her volunteering and sacrifice leading to imprisonment and ill treatment within as punishment. What she did as part of reconciliation is in part a masterstroke in inflicting inexplicable pain in return to her perpetrator, is what made this film a winner, although it will stun you into silence well after the end credits roll from the devastation the narrative left in its wake.
The other half of the narrative deals with Jeanne and Simon's journey to dig through unwritten laws, and reluctance of tightly knit communities that prefer to keep the status quo and not dwell and reopen wounds inflicted from their collective shameful past, some in denial, while others happy to have seen a more favourable outcome from Nawal's hardships. It is this piecing together of the mystery like an investigative drama that makes Incendies unique, and what more, Radiohead also features in the soundtrack strange but true, and very powerful if you ask me.
Comparing the ratings between this film at M18 and Womb at R21 reveals what the censors allow and not allow when dealing with more mature themes, likely centered around the intention of its more controversial scenes. It's anyone's guess why was was given the highest rating possible, and the other one rung lower, given that both actually didn't have anything explicit, except perhaps one was used as an unintentional weapon of torture and destruction in the psychological sense, while the other was a love story gotten out of control! Still, for its strong story and excellent production values, Incendies becomes that must watch film in 2011, especially during this season of noisy summer action blockbusters that absolutely don't resonate as much as this film. Highly recommended!
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
In Canada, the sixty year-old immigrant secretary Nawal Marwan (Lubna
Azabal) passes away and the notary Jean Lebel (Rémy Girard), who had
been her employer and friend for seventeen years, reads her will to her
twin son and daughter Simon (Maxim Gaudette) and Jeanne Marwan (Mélissa
Désormeaux-Poulin), who is a mathematician.
Nawal requests to be buried naked with her face down and her tomb without a gravestone; further, she leaves three sealed envelopes addressed to the twins' father that they believed had deceased in the Middle East; to their unknown brother; and the last one to themselves to be opened only after the delivery of the other two. Then, they may put a gravestone on her tomb. Simon is reluctant to respect his mother last wishes, but Jeanne decides to find her biological father and brother.
She travels to the Middle East to track down the past life of her mother and she discovers who she was before moving to Canada. She feels disturbed with the revelations and asks Simon to come to the Middle East to assist her in her journey. Simon discovers who his father and his brother are and concludes that one plus one may be equal to one.
"Incendies" is an intriguing film about the journey of two twin siblings that travel to the Middle East to fulfill the last wish of their mother and end discovering the disturbing history of their family.
The screenplay is very well written and discloses in parallel to the journey of Jeanne first and Simon later, the brave history of their mother in an unnamed country in the Middle East. The plot point in the conclusion is totally unexpected and heartbreaking. My vote is eight.
Title (Brazil): "Incêndios" ("Fires")
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