Incendies featured image

Reviewed by Marc Glassman

Denis Villeneuve, director & script
Based on the play by Wajdi Mouawad
Starring: Lubna Azabal (Nawal Marwan), Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin (Jeanne Marwan), Abdelghafour Elaaziz (Abou Tarek), Maxim Gaudette (Simon Marwan), Remy Girard (Notary Jean Lebel)

A brother and sister, Simon and Jeanne Marwan, arrive at a Quebec notary’s office to hear their mother’s last will and testament. To their shock, the notary M. Lebel, their mother’s boss, friend and executor of her estate, hands them two envelopes, one for the father they thought had died and one for a brother, who they never dreamed had existed. Lebel informs them that this was their mother’s passionate wish; in effect, their inheritance: to deliver these letters to the rest of their immediate family.

This melodramatic conceit propelled Wajdi Mouawad’s drama to multiple Dora awards and international acclaim. Who was Jeanne and Simon’s mother? Nawal Marwan’s children don’t know, all of a sudden, what her life was all about–why she was so reticent to talk about her past in the Middle East. Clearly, she was more than a reticent office functionary and conservative immigrant mother.

Now, in death, Nawal was demanding that her children go back to reclaim her past, and a legacy that they must share. The process of discovery and the revelations they discover are gut-wrenchingly personal and political.

Denis Villeneuve, the director of last year’s remarkable look at the Montreal Massacre, Polytechnique, has followed up with this riveting and equally tragic piece. Like many, he was shaken by the power of the original drama but, as a scriptwriter and filmmaker, he knew that much had to change to make a “coup de theatre” into art cinema.

Since Mouawad didn’t name the country where Nawal Marwan spent her youth and early adulthood, Villeneuve was given latitude to film Incendies anywhere in the Middle East. Jordan stands in for Lebanon, most likely, but the nation Nawal comes from could be Tunisia or Algeria or even Palestine or Iraq. The advantage of cinema over even the best theatre is that the physicality of scenes and locations can be overwhelmingly powerful. Here, the heat and the dust and the sudden eruptions of violence don’t have to be imagined; they’re created in a visceral fashion for film.

It’s Jeanne, Nawal’s daughter, who takes on the lion’s share of the task left to her and Simon. She encounters the fearful and potentially violent people of her mother’s homeland–and village. Jeanne discovers that her mother was a legendary rebel and prisoner. Even in death, people still hate or admire her.

Eventually, Jeanne and Simon find out the truth about their mother’s husband and their other brother. It’s a tale out of Greek tragedy–and Victorian melodrama. Of course, the secret can’t be revealed but suffice it to say that it’s one that’s more effective on stage than on screen.

Denis Villeneuve’s powerful direction and script, Wajdi Mouawad’s extraordinary play, the great visuals of cinematographer Andre Turpin and a brilliant cast have combined to make Incendies an important film, made in Canada, for the world. All reservations aside, this is one Canadian film that you should see this season.

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