The 50 Movies Project is an annual tradition at The Warning Sign. Every year, I select 50 movies that I feel I must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. This year I’m focusing on contemporary films (1980 to present day) that I somehow haven’t gotten around to seeing yet.
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Writers: Denis Villeneuve, Wajdi Mouawad, Valérie Beaugrand-Champagne
Country: Canada, France
Starring: Lubna Azabal, Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin, Maxim Gaudette, Rémy Girard
Running Time: 139 minutes
The very first shot of Incendies, the Oscar-nominated French-Canadian drama from director Denis Velleneuve (Prisoners, Enemy), shows a serene Middle Eastern landscape. As we watch the leaves of a palm tree sway in the wind, Radiohead’s mesmeric “You and Whose Army?” begins to play. The camera slowly pans indoors, taking us into a grimy room full of young boys waiting in line to get their heads shaved. The children stand there, mostly emotionless, as a group of young men, likely teenagers, stand guard with assault rifles. Eventually, the camera settles on the young boy who is currently having his head shaved. As the song reaches its crescendo, the shot zooms in on the young boy’s bone-chilling expression with eyes that will pierce your soul. It’s an unforgettable and flawless introduction to a film that has the potential to shake you down to your bones.
Incendies then moves to present day in Montreal, as twin siblings Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) and Simon (Maxim Guadette) are brought together to hear the will of their recently deceased mother, Nawal (Lubna Azabal). They learn that their mother had two final requests for them, both of which would require a trip to the Middle East. Jeanne is to deliver a letter to their father, who they never knew and weren’t even aware was still alive. Simon is to bring a letter to a brother that they had no idea existed. This sounds like the setup for what could be a solid mystery film, but Incendies sets itself apart by opting for a unique dual narrative structure.
As we watch Jeanne and Simon explore the unnamed Middle Eastern country of which their mother was from, we are given glimpses of the rough and tumultuous life Nawal lived before they were born. Back then, their mother’s home country was in the midst of a civil war driven by religious extremists. She was immediately caught in the crossfire simply because she was a Christian who was dating a Muslim. A series of tragedies surrounds young Nawal, sending her on a cross-country journey of self-discovery, one in which violence and brutality appears to be around every corner.
Remnants of the past remain everywhere in this country in its present day, and Jeanne even discovers that there are those who will immediately shun her for simply mentioning her mother’s name. Clearly, Nawal left a lasting impression in her homeland. This is all a bit of a shock to Jeanne and Simon, as their mother had purposefully hid this part of her life from her children. In the midst of war and turmoil, anyone is capable of unthinkable actions, their mother included.
At the core of Incendies is a deep, gut-wrenching secret, one that is not immediately apparent even when it is alluded to on screen. At first, I found this revelation to be off-putting. It relied on a few too many convenient coincidences for my liking. Yet as I sat and thought about the film, I fell more and more in love with it. This isn’t a shock ending for the sake of it; it’s a reflection on humanity, war and the type of love that can only be provided and shared by a family.
Incendies is an extraordinary film that immediately leaves an impact, one that will linger for weeks, months or even years. It’s deeply personal and sometimes hard to watch, but, astonishingly, it somehow brings a glimmer of hope in the midst of rape, murder and other atrocities.