INCENDIES (2010, Canada)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Denis Villeneuve
Cast: Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin, Lubna Azabal, Maxim Gaudette
My Rating: 10/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 93% Certified Fresh

PLOT: Twins living in French Canada journey to the Middle East to fulfill their mother’s last wishes by discovering their family history.

A few years before French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve made a big splash in American cinema with Sicario, Arrival, and Blade Runner 2049, he directed Incendies [French for “flames” or “fires”…I had to look it up].   This is one of the best films I’ve ever seen.  It’s a mystery, a melodrama, and an urgent plea for peace, all at once.  It’s heartbreaking, engaging, absorbing, and beautiful to look at.  There are two directors currently working who I believe have successfully picked up the mantle left behind by Stanley Kubrick.  Denis Villeneuve is one of them.

(The other is Alejandro G. Iñárritu [Babel, The Revenant], but let’s not get sidetracked…)

A mother dies.  At the reading of her will, her twin son and daughter receive a mission: go to the Middle East and track down their previously unknown father and brother, and give them letters in sealed envelopes.  Only then will the mother allow a headstone to be erected on her gravesite.

The brother, Simon, is skeptical, owing to the mother’s strange behavior in her later years, but the daughter, Jeanne, dutifully follows her mother’s wishes and travels to an unnamed country in the Middle East and begins the laborious process of tracking down anyone who knew her mother and father.

We also get flashbacks of the mother, Nawal, in her younger years, paralleling the daughter’s search.  We learn that Nawal, a Christian, fell in love with a Muslim, Wahab, which is a BIG no-no, to say the least.  Soon, Wahab is out of the picture, and Nawal gives birth to a son who is immediately taken from her arms and delivered to an orphanage.

So far, this is standard soap opera material, but it’s depicted with gorgeous cinematography and spot-on direction.  Director Villeneuve uses a lot of wide shots that have a stark beauty; they reminded me of some of the memorable vistas from Bonnie and Clyde and The Deer Hunter.

When Nawal gets a little older, she decides to track down her son.  This is made difficult owing to the state of war that now exists between Muslims and Christian Nationalists.  Attacks and reprisals make it nearly impossible to find accurate records.  She travels alone from one burned-out orphanage to another looking for clues.  At a key moment, she flags down a bus, but is very careful to first hide her crucifix necklace and put on a head-covering.  Can’t be too careful.

At this point, regrettably, I have to abandon summarizing the story, because the less you know about what happens after Nawal gets on that bus, the more effective those events will be.  Suffice to say it’s a life-changing event, one that sends her on a wildly careening path from activist to assassin to political prisoner.

All of this, naturally, comes as a shock to her children, Jeanne and Simon, who are starting to think this search for missing family members may be a mistake.  At one point, someone makes an important statement: “Sometimes, it’s better not to know some things.”

So…what is this movie really about?  It’s not just about the mystery of the missing family members, which is enough of an engine to make a compelling movie on its own, especially when it’s intertwined with the mother’s past.  But there is a deeper, much more profound level to Incendies that is not apparent until the movie’s final sections, when the threads of Nawal’s past converge in a moment of shattering revelations.  The movie beautifully hides its real motives along the way so you get blindsided by its true message, its true heart.

I dunno, maybe I’m getting too mushy.  But that’s the effect this movie had on me.  I’ve only experienced this kind of emotional catharsis after a precious few films.  It’s impossible to fully describe it without giving away the secrets lying at the heart of Incendies.

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