Quebeçois director Denis Villenueve crafts a dark and complex narrative in his 2010 film Incendies, adapted from Wajdi Mouawad’s play “Scorched.” The film earned a Best Foreign Language Film nomination at this past year’s Academy Awards.
The intricate story begins with brother and sister Simon and Jeanne Marwan (Maxim Gaudette and Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) at the reading of their mother’s will. In the will, the deceased Nawal Marwan (Lubna Azabal) reveals two bewildering secrets to her children: that their father is still alive, and that the two have an older brother whom she was forced to abandon while a young woman in the Middle East.
Dying in despair in Canada, Nawal charges her children with a final redemptive act that will bring solace and closure to her otherwise troubled existence — to find their brother and father and deliver to each of them a sealed envelope.
Embarking on a journey to the land her mother left behind, Jeanne finds clues that help her solve the enigma of her mother’s life. Through skillful editing, the film depicts Jeanne’s modern-day search for truth alongside Nawal’s difficult experience thirty years earlier, both as a mother striving for reunion with her orphaned son, and as a political prisoner of the jarringly violent war between Christian and Muslim militants.
Beleaguered by the atrocities her search reveals, Jeanne enlists the help of her brother, Simon, and their mother’s former colleague, notary Jean Lebel, in the ensuing series of increasingly abrupt twists and turns.
The 130-minute chronicle largely follows this journey, even at the expense of capturing more of the emotional trauma inherent in the siblings’ discoveries and their mother’s life story. For their part, actors Gaudette, Désormeaux-Poulin and Azabal contribute to the film’s quality some engrossing performances that are featured all too infrequently.
But even as is, Incendies is the work of a filmmaker who has truly mastered his craft. However, only when the ending credits begin does the true gravity of the story emerge — even if the viewer must suspend his disbelief to feel the full effect.
Certainly not an uplifting work, the film serves as a not-so-subtle reminder of the pervasive human tendency toward destruction, continued unrest and upheaval. Despite its backdrop of brutal realism, the film still captures the tenacity of the human spirit for love and understanding.
This film is not for the faint of heart; rather, it is a compelling and thought-provoking work that demonstrates the immense power of properly executed cinema. The portrayal of human aggression and hatred is intense, but the result is a truly compassionate view of human conflict and the human condition.