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DVD Review: Incendies (R)

IncendiesKernel Rating (out of 5): whole-popcorn-kernalwhole-popcorn-kernalwhole-popcorn-kernalwhole-popcorn-kernal

MPAA Rating: R      Length: 130 minutes

Age Appropriate for: 17+. The film deserves its R rating, with lots of violence, including the murder of children; sexual abuse; cursing; and the emotional toll of a civil war.  

For the first 120 minutes, ‘Incendies’ is a flawless film about the complex ethical toll of a religious civil war. The last 10 minutes veer off course, but the film nevertheless packs a wholly overwhelming emotional punch.

By Roxana Hadadi

It took nearly a year for the 2010 Canadian film “Incendies” to find its way to theaters in the United States, and four months after its April 2011 release, it finally arrives on DVD.

IncendiesBy Roxana Hadadi

It took nearly a year for the 2010 Canadian film “Incendies” to find its way to theaters in the United States, and four months after its April 2011 release, it finally arrives on DVD. And as clichéd as the saying goes, “Incendies” is worth the wait, a devastating probe into what makes a an identity. Religion, family, nation — director and writer Denis Villeneuve makes them all simultaneously important and meaningless.

“Incendies” was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2010 Academy Awards and lost to Denmark’s “In A Better World,” which means that I have to see that movie as soon as possible to decipher if it really deserved to beat “Incendies,” a thrilling, mysterious drama that unravels family ties as it documents the egregious violence inherent in every aspect of our lives. In Arabic and French, the movie takes place in Canada and the Middle East — a country is never named, but numerous hints are dropped that the focus is Lebanon’s civil war, which lasted from 1975 to 1990 — using dual storylines to link a twin brother and sister to their mother’s past. Emotionally wrenching and incredibly harrowing, “Incendies” — which is an adaptation of the equally moving play, “Scorched,” by Wadji Mouawad — is the kind of film that builds slowly but deliberately. Flashbacks have a purpose. Cultural traditions resonate. Everything is an extension of the past, Villeneuve says, but it’s how we choose what to remember that matters.

Much like this summer’s “Sarah’s Key” used juxtaposing plots to illuminate main characters living in different time periods, “Incendies” jumps from twentysomething Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) and her twin brother Simon (Maxim Gaudette), living in the now, to their mother Nawal (Lubna Azabal), living in the then. In the present storyline, Nawal has recently died, and has left with her former employer, notary Jean Lebel (Rémy Girard), specific instructions for her children: They are not allowed to mark her grave with a headstone or her name until they deliver two letters. The first, for Jeanne to deliver, is for the father they thought was dead, and the second, for Simon to deliver, is for the brother they never knew they had.

Simon accuses Jean of going along with a trick their mother has set up, but Jeanne isn’t as cynical. She takes the letters, plans a trip to the Middle East and, since she’s a mathematician, approaches the problem in a logical way: She’ll start at the university where Nawal studied, then work from there to find anyone who knew her.

But Nawal wrote in her final letter to her children that “childhood is a knife stuck in your throat — it can’t be easily removed,” and soon Jeanne begins to understand the turmoil and tragedy of her mother’s life. In flashbacks to Nawal, we see her fall in love, face her family’s wrath — since she was raised Christian, and her lover was Muslim — live through tragedy and try to start a new life by deciding to attend university.
But her first, personal tragedy comes before many others, especially as the civil war between the Christians and Muslims starts sweeping through the country. Each massacres the other; no one is innocent as the blood spills. Nawal is forced to choose sides, and as her daughter learns of the horrible decisions she had to make and the awful things she lived through, Jeanne rapidly becomes aware of how little she knew her mother. “You’re definitely not from here,” someone says when Jeanne asks for help, but it’s clear she’s not only a stranger in the Middle East but also to the reality of Nawal.

One of the greatest strengths of “Incendies” is how Villeneuve gives us little time to acclimate to every horrible thing that happens, mirroring both Nawal’s and Jeanne’s own forcible realization of the changing world around them. Each woman seems to operate in a sphere of isolation — Nawal because of her religious and nationalist beliefs, Jeanne because of her inability to speak fluent Arabic — and Villeneuve creates great scenes to help us feel as uncomfortable as they do. There’s a horribly heartbreaking scene after a massacre on a bus when Nawal is forced to choose to save her own life or someone else’s, and another when Jeanne arrives in her mother’s native village and hears that still, more than three decades later, her mother remains a disgrace to everyone there. Time doesn’t heal some wounds.

The film gathers its impact not only from Villeneuve’s vision but from the performances of Désormeaux-Poulin and Azabal. Azabal is insanely good, hitting every note from pained to desperate to shocked to resilient; she’s a survivor in all the ways someone can embody that role. And though her role is less tragic, Désormeaux-Poulin grows during the course of the film as Jeanne, as every new layer of information gives her character a greater sense of where her mother came from — and how she lived through it.

“Incendies” would be perfect if it weren’t for the film’s final 10 minutes, which will push your suspension of disbelief; things wrap up in a way that is far too coincidental for the brutality that came previously. But until then, “Incendies” is relevatory.

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