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Lubna Azabal in INCENDIES (Photo: Sabrik Hakeem/Sony Pictures Classics)

Written & Directed by Denis Villeneuve, based on the play Scorched by Wajdi Mouawad
Produced by Luc Déry & Kim McCraw
Released by Sony Pictures Classics
English, French & Arabic with English subtitles
Canada/France. 130 min. Rated R
Lubna Azabal, Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin, Maxim Gaudette, Rémy Girard & Abdelghafour Elaaziz

Incendies dramatically narrows the epic story of fratricidal war in the Mideast into the harrowing travails of one woman, who leaves behind a tortured legacy for her adult children. The unforgettable look of hate on the face of a boy in the prologue reverberates throughout the film.

In the first chapter, “The Twins,” a Quebec lawyer greets bereaved brother Simon (Maxim Gaudette) and sister Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) at his office to present them with the will and last request of their just deceased mother, his longtime secretary Nawal Marwan (Lubna Azabal). The twins’ bickering over responsibility and burial is overwhelmed by the presentation of clues to their mother’s past—an old passport, photograph, and a cross. They are told to find their father and a previously unknown brother and to deliver an envelope to each before her funeral. Knowing no Arabic and with only connections through her academic advisor, the sister agrees to take on the mission.

The story unfolds over about seven chapters, marked by a person and place in an unnamed, fictional country. (The family of Wajdi Mouawad, author of the play Scorched which was adapted for the film, fled the Lebanese civil war when he was a child.) The chapters alternate, going back and forth in time, following Nawal and her young children from their fraught origins in the desert to a middle-class life in Canada. The flashback into Nawal’s past starts, like so much fiction about this part of the world, with a Romeo and Juliet fleeing their disapproving families. At first, the pregnant Nawal is thwarted by her vengeful older brother, protecting their Christian family’s honor, from running off with her Muslim lover. She finds women who will secretly help her, but with stringent conditions. Her daughter later sees, in a colorful exchange, that any traces of female solidarity in her mother’s home village are long gone and that only the memory of her mother’s disgrace remains. After Nawal has fled from her home, she matures through education, radicalization, and political protest, familiar from today’s news. But maternal guilt drives her to undertake a search through a beautiful desert landscape rift with sudden bouts of violence.

Nawal wears a cross that shifts back and forth from a target to a talisman. Within cycles of revenge, her life becomes even worse (for her and the viewing audience) when she gets caught up in the wily machinations of a local warlord and she’s captured by his brutal enemies. Warning—the prison scenes are difficult to watch, especially once a notorious torturer is brought in to break down her resistance. Tracking this part of her past becomes so dangerous that, back in the present day, Jeanne convinces her twin brother to follow their mother’s trail to the gangster-like war lord who holds crucial pieces of the puzzle that heartbreakingly come back to Canada. (The meeting with him is a reminder of the social complexities in this part of the world.)

The emotional reactions of those swept up in horrific strife contrasts sharply with the stiff political dialogue in Julian Schnabel’s Miral, but the connections between that semi-autobiographical film’s two generations of Palestinian women do not strain credulity as much as the tragic human coincidences that solve the involving mystery in Incendies. Despite the exemplary acting, cinematography, insightful scope, and contemporary relevance, the revelations make the film seem like an extended and more extreme episode of the TV series Who Do You Think You Are?, which traces celebrities’ family trees and uncovers how their forebears did, or didn’t, survive such historical turmoil as slavery and the Holocaust. But helped by the mother’s professions in the epilogue of how love and memory can co-exist, Incendies is a powerful teaching tool for those outside the region about how complex it will be to achieve peace in the Mideast and North Africa. Nora Lee Mandel
April 29, 2011



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