In the Oscar-nominated mystery Incendies, a daughter investigates her mother’s life and her own heritage. Denis Villeneuve writes and directs.
Incendies won Best Canadian Feature Film at the Toronto International Film Festival, as well as multiple Genie and Jutra awards in that country.
This suspenseful family drama intertwines a daughter’s vision quest with scenes from her mother’s traumatic early years in the Middle East.
When their mother dies, grown twins Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) and Simon (Maxim Gaudette) arrive for the reading of her will. They are stunned when Jean Lebel (Remy Girard), a notary public and their mother’s former boss, hands them two envelopes.
Jeanne is asked to deliver a letter to their father. Simon is asked to deliver a letter to their brother. Jeanne and Simon had no idea that their father was alive. They never knew they had a brother.
Nawal Marwan (played by radiant Belgian actress Lubna Azabal) had worked as a quiet secretary. Bewildered, Jeanne tries to make sense of her mother’s words. If the twins deliver these messages, “the silence will be broken, a promise kept.”
A fact-finding mission
Simon balks and remains in Montreal. He does not want to delve into the past. He’d rather abandon his family history and any unseemly details. The strain of his mother’s nervous illnesses has been enough for him.
Simon urges Jeanne not to go. A graduate student in mathematics, Jeanne seeks the advice of a professor. He compares mathematics to her complex relationship with her mother.
The land of loneliness
“Now, you enter an entirely different adventure. The subject will be intractable problems that always lead to other problems, just as intractable,” he tells her.
“People around you will repeatedly say that your struggles are in vain,” he says. “You’ll have no argument to defend yourself, for the work will be exhausting and complex. Welcome to pure mathematics, the land of loneliness.”
Jeanne travels to the Middle East
Jeanne insists on going alone if she must, compelled to hunt down the truth so her heart can be at peace. She sets out for the unnamed Middle Eastern country.
We witness the daughter following each clue, talking to people who knew Nawal, or knew of her. A group of village women is cruel and judgmental. Desormeaux-Poulin (Taking the Plunge) gives an intense but nuanced performance, filled with insatiable curiosity and growing dread.
Much later when she faces danger, Simon rushes to her side to help complete the search. Gaudette (Polytechnique) conveys the male heart beautifully.
Renowned Canadian actor Girard crafts a memorable character in Lebel, who guides and protects the twins. He assures them that their mother was of sound mind, but indelibly marked by her early years.
Nawal was beset by tragedy from early girlhood through the horrors of her country’s civil war. Key scenes from Nawal’s life are shown as Jeanne walks the same streets her mother once did.
Azabal’s great dignity explodes into anger as she struggles to overcome unimaginable personal pain.
Nawal’s early years
Nawal is rebuked by her Christian family when she falls in love with a Muslim. Her brothers track the lovers to an orchard and murder her beloved. Later her grandmother helps her deliver a baby boy, who is quickly given up for adoption to save the family from shame.
The grandmother tattoos three dots on the baby’s heel, an identifying mark. “I’ll find you again one day,” Nawal promises him.
Nawal is sent away to live with relatives. She becomes a student and political activist. Deciding to search for her son, she sets off on a bus filled with Muslims.
Search for her son
When Christian extremists detain the group, Nawal pretends she is still a Christian to save herself. Helplessly, she watches as all aboard are massacred, flames exploding in the middle of the desert.
Rage takes over as Nawal joins an extremist group, assassinating a Christian leader while posing as a tutor. She is sentenced to 15 years in prison, where she is tortured and raped.
Nawal survives by singing in solitary confinement. This enrages her captors. Jeanne and Simon eventually meet a midwife who worked at the prison. She remembers Nawal fondly as “The Woman Who Sings.”
Villeneuve defines the title Incendies as an inferno, “something totally destroyed, totally transformed . . . destruction that you cannot change afterwards.”
Filmed in Montreal and Jordan, it is based on the play of the same name by the Lebanese-born writer Wajdi Mouawad.
Death is never the end
Beautiful and devastating, the film features wrenching imagery and ominous sound. As it opens, young Muslim boys are having their heads shaved, apparently being prepared for terrorist training. One boy stares back into the camera, his eyes bottomless and empty.
Incendies’ explosive conclusion exposes the scars of violence. “Death is never the end of the story,” Lebel reminds us. “There are always details.” (5 out of 5 stars)
Incendies 2010 / R / 2 hours, 10 min
Cast Overview: Lubna Azabal, Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin, Maxim Gaudette, Remy Girard, Abdelghafour Elaaziz, Allen Altman, Mohamed Majd, Nabil Sawalha, Baya Belal
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Genre: Drama, Mystery, World Cinema
Languages: French and Arabic with English subtitles