Incendies (2011) Review

Incendies is the dark and gnawing film of the year for viewers that thrive on compelling realism. This is a telling drama of a mother’s love. In forty years of searching and amidst a war torn homeland, one woman’s refusal to shun love establishes a moral precedent that defines her family. A caveat: This is neither a child’s fairy tale nor a rendering for the faint of heart. This is the unapologetic tincture of a family’s survival.

Audiences are introduced to recently orphaned twins, brother and sister (Maxim Gaudette and Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin). Matriarch Nawal Marwan (Lubna Azabal) has left a will with very specific detailing: Her children are to deliver two letters, each to a stranger. This final request to absolve a past wrong sets the siblings on a journey of discovery that involves a violent past, complete with societal condemnation, religious persecution and an inner turmoil that can only be rectified by the most drastic of measures.

The film is not only thoughtfully provoking it is scenically gratifying. Viewers are taken inside the office of a well-to-do Canadian businessman, and thrust into the outback of the Middle East. “How will the twins accomplish delivery in this strange land?” some may wonder with burgeoning curiosity.

Here, the meanderings of on-foot travel intermixed with dusty car rides along serpentine roads and foothills perpetuate the heightening mystery that is the core of this particular mother’s love. Viewers find themselves in unknown territories with mounting questions and no means of familiarity or the expected comfort bred of logical thought as Nawal’s homeland is a place outside of average expectation.

The film is rated for an adult audience because of extreme and controversial subject matter and violence. The audience has a very up-close and personal experience as witnesses to the torture and cold-blooded murder of many innocents. Writer Wadji Mouawad drew from and added to this production his own experiences coming-of-age after leaving war in his homeland of Lebanon. Viewers who thrive on mystery will appreciate the rich, chewy morsels of subtly revealed plot. Gangsters, vigilantes and busy-bodies appear at every bend of the road or village square.

Lubna Azabal is captivating. She gives Nawal such vulnerability in youth and then carries her through so much agony, at so many junctures, through so many years. Lubna as a young woman in love is so relatable, so honest. When the tides turn and Narwal endures the consequences of her choices it is here that Azabal reveals to us a woman who is battered and broken.  She is a champion and glows with a spirit of the earnest rites.

Mellissa Desormeaux-Poulin is radiant as the obedient and practical daughter. She has the loyalty of the most unconditional love shared with the woman who raised her and somehow, she still barely knew. As Jeanne walks in her Mother’s proverbial shoes, Desormeaux-Poulin is trusting and possessed by the most sincere faith.

Maxim Gaudette’s portrayal of Simon is someone to whom American audiences can relate. He is tortured by the memories of a mother he never fully understood and it threatens to take its toll on his future if left unresolved. This specific and difficult turmoil is given a twist in Maxim’s Brando-like (turn as Stanley Kowalski) purging of fears while standing and screaming to a deaf God in the middle of a city street.

When truly great actors realize the integrity of a story, no role is too small. Remy Girard, is Narwal’s former employer and friend. It is he who believes most that her final request can and must be fulfilled to satisfaction. His integral loyalty has a potency that resonates and remains a necessary thread in the fabric that is Incendies.

There are telling points-of-view about southland home-life. There are ancient rules and legacies that require strict adherence by its followers. Women’s rights and survival within the underlying community is caustic. Some scenes may be extreme to American audiences. Others are revealing. Each paints a picture of the proverbial village that is such a requirement when raising a child.

Because of the nature of the subject matter, American audiences of Incendies may find themselves baffled by the film’s resolution. The letters each meet their owner as the sender hoped. It is the message of love contained within each letter that makes the journey necessary and worthwhile. The sincerity of this particular rendering of contemporary life is comprehensible even when unrelatable.