For Your Information: Star Ratings Out Of Five (★★★★★) Stars

Tuesday, May 24, 2011



Incendies is a film of great many layers -- one of clashing forms, genres, protagonists and hidden messages. The French Canadian, Best Foreign Language Film nominee is actually a smorgasbord of the candid, the mysterious, the horrific, the heartfelt, and the deranged all fighting to take hold of the confounded viewer, pressed back in his seat by the startling nature of what's presented. Although, as fascinating as the film is, I can't say that its heavy stream of disparate elements was held together seamlessly. In fact, the result is a rather untidy package.

It would take a master to blend a mystery, a cross-continental identity search, a Greek tragedy, a war film and a political allegory into a polished, unwavering product of consummate power; but director Denis Villeneuve doesn't quite have the craft to keep up with his ambitions. Based on the novel Scorched by Wajdi Mouawad, Incendies tells two parallel stories in a non-linear narrative. The first is the story of Jeanne and Simon, twins from Quebec, who, in accordance with their mother's dying wishes, must track down their long lost father and brother in Lebanon. The second is the story of their mother, Nawal, and her journey from disgraced Lebanese villager to POW in a religious war to quiet single mother living in Quebec.

For the first half of the movie's run-time, we follow Jeanne in search of her father. As the film cuts between Jeanne's journey and Nawal's forty years before, the same cross, that hangs around both women's necks, is both a clever match-cut tool as well as a meaningful motif linking mother and daughter and marking Jeanne's investigation as something of a religious pilgrimage. The Lebanese civil war that Nawal gets caught up in, circa 1970, is religious, and her christianity is by turns her condemnation and her saving grace depending on which war party she runs across. In its somber, taciturn way, Incendies compels most in its first half as Jeanne retraces her mother's steps, traveling down the same dirt roads, talking to the same people, inhabiting the same houses and rooms. Like a great mystery, the trail runs hot and cold, clues lead to people of interest, some will talk and some won't. The procedural aspect hides a more personal adventure as well: in her odyssey to learn her father's identity, she learns more about her mother than she ever knew, and even more, about herself, her own roots and all the blood, violence and hate that led to her own conception. It's searing the way the film contemplates the possible darkness hiding behind a person's origins.

The rest of the film is a fractured, sometimes feckless, patchwork of different components. Non-sequitors involving child soldiers have purpose, but are placed inharmoniously within the story and without context or proper transition. Nawal's long stint in a tiger-cage of a political prison is wrought with confusing structural fallacies and a discombobulated sense of time lapse. It's not intended, believe me -- when specific actions occur is very important to the film's logic and especially its wallop of a climaxing plot twist. (You might want to read up on your Sophocles). And the underlying political agenda is a sleepy allegory about the suffering incurred on those attempting to overcome regional religious intolerance. All those layers can make for a heady filmic experience when done right, but Incendies isn't as incisive and important as it is busy and crudely fragmented.

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