'Incendies': Within A Family, Secret Fires Burn

Apr 21, 2011

Near the beginning of Incendies, a notary reads a mother's will to her two grown children, twins Simon and Jeanne.

In that will, the late Nawal Marwan specifies that she is to be buried without a coffin or headstone, naked and face down, because those who don't keep their promises don't deserve to face the world.

Then the notary hands the twins two envelopes, which the will insists must be delivered to their father and their brother. Once that's done, their mother's promise will have been kept, and they can place a headstone on her grave.

But there's a problem: As far as they know, their father died decades earlier and half a world away. And they don't have a brother.

So begins an odyssey that immerses Simon and Jeanne deep in a Middle Eastern past that their mother, played searingly by Lubna Azabal, never talked about — a past in which she bore a child out of wedlock, her disgrace catching her family up in a bloody chain of violence and retribution, with militant Christians and Muslims slaughtering each other in an unending cycle of revenge for past murders.

The country isn't specified, but it's pretty clearly Lebanon, from which playwright Wajdi Mouawad and his family fled when he was a child. Incendies is based on his play Scorched, though until its final moments, there's barely a hint that it came from the stage. Where the play is crammed with long paragraphs of dialogue, Denis Villeneuve's film makes its most trenchant points with silence, gasps, wails, his camera panning across brutal landscapes as characters have their lives upended by newly discovered truths.

I can't recall seeing a film in which I have so often wondered, "My God, how must that feel?" We in the audience are meant to be as unsettled as the characters. I've heard complaints about the ending being over-the-top, but my background is live theater, and you won't hear them from me. The storytelling in Incendies strikes me as primal the way Greek tragedy is primal. Shattering. Cathartic. It is a breathtaking film.

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