Finally, a smart movie about the horrors of war without necessary going OTT on guts and gore.
Incendies, an import from Quebec, is one movie that grips your attention from the start and never lets go until the final harrowing minutes when the big AHA! moment unravels. But this is one movie that takes time to take the audience to a mystery ride that is both horrific and sentimental, so that when the final piece of the puzzle finally came into place, we have a movie ending that packs a punch akin to a sledgehammer to the solar plexus.
The film is that powerful.
The film starts rather like a regular whodunit, when twins Simon and Jeanne received instructions from the local notary – who also happened to be their mother’s boss – to deliver a letter to their father and brother. This was puzzling for the two, who had never met their father and who – up until now – had never known that they even had a brother. But such were the specific instructions stipulated in their mother’s will, dear old mom who had gone into an odd state of catatonia weeks before she had snuffed it.
And thus the journey for the two begins, with Jeanne immediately retracing the steps with dogging Holmes-like determination while her brother shrugs in disinterest, thinking that the labyrinthine mission their mother had set them to is quite pointless.
This is one movie that is brave enough to take a stand against the horrors of war, especially one steeped in religious differences. Braver still is a movie that doesn’t shirk in portraying Christians who are as “bad” as the Muslims as the death toll between the two factions steadily rises. Set against the backdrop of the Christian-Muslim conflict in a fictitious Middle Eastern country, Incendies effectively portrays the horrors of war, of man’s cruelty against man without necessarily resorting to the usual visceral guts-hanging-out-of-the-stomach shtick Hollywood had so over-used.
Still, that doesn’t mean that the horror level is not up there with the best that Hollywood offers. There was one scene, for instance, when Nawal, the twins’ mother, encounters a massacre perpetuated by her fellow Christians against helpless, unarmed Muslim civilians, including a small child who tried to escape. Nawal herself was barely able to survive, and only after she identified herself as a fellow Christian.
There are also tender emotional moments, and I say “tender”, not over-the-top. The familial scenes between Nawal and her children for instance, were heartbreakingly sentimental but not maudlin. You will know what I mean when you watch the film especially the final 25 minutes.
Mainstream audiences familiar with Tarantino’s work will find that helmer Denis Villenueve’s narrative device is somewhat familiar, especially with the way the film was segregated into chapters (think Inglourious Basterds or Pulp Fiction). But whereas Tarantino’s style is gimmicky (it was clever in Pulp Fiction; rather pretentious in Kill Bill), here it helps the audience understand the layers of the mystery better.
Villenueve works a near-masterpiece, and he has a solid script and great actors to bank on. Lubna Azabal as Nawal Marwan is one of the most movingly-effective actors to ever grace the screen. She plays Nawal with the vulnerability and quiet dignity that a woman who had seen the worst in wars perpetuated by those closest to her and even against her.
Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin as Jeanne turn in a strong performance as doggedly determined daughter Jeanne while Maxim Gaudette plays Simon’s neuroses with acute sensitivity.
I will not say some more lest I give away too much of the story. Still, I say as a movie about love conquering all, Incendies is not without its share of imperfections. And that theme of loving your enemy has been hammered in several times before.
However, with Villenueve’s deft touch, the story comes out really fresh and new.
Like I said, a masterpiece.
Notes While Watching Incendies
1. Incendies. Means ‘fires’. That means when somebody asked me what happened to the neighbourhood dog, I’d simply grin and say, “Incendies.”
2. When I grow up, I want to be a sniper.
3. In the movie, the Christians were slaughtering Muslim innocents. In real life, Christian politicians are stealing from the coffers while devout Christians would not think twice about wiping out all the Muslims in Mindanao. Maybe, I should try Buddhism.
4. Film should not be watched by Christian conservatives, you know, the kind who think they belong to the “right” religion. Their mind will be totally f*cked.
5. Who would have thought that a country like Canada could create a definitive, intelligent story about the Muslim-Christian conflict? I mean, what have WE been doing all along?
6. “One plus one, equals one.” And the answer to that riddle is the most gut-wrenching reality of all.
7. Note to self: Must scrounge the discount bin for more of Villenueve’s work.
8. Have P100 in my pocket that says this movie will NOT be adopted by mainstream Hollywood. Yup, the film is just too smart for them.
9. Not meant to be seen by Transformers fans. And Justin Bieber fans. And fans of Twilight. ‘Nuff said.