Incendies: Shades of Lebanon

THE SEARCH BEGAN AT THE OPENING OF THEIR MOTHER’S WILL.

incendiesFilmmaker Denis Villeneuve happened to be in Montreal one day and took the chance to see a play, “Incendies” by Wajdi Mouawad. He wasn’t really scouting for a new project for himself, but the play caught his attention. The writer, who is Lebanese, found a way to fuse his experiences from the old country with Greek tragedy, and he was also clearly inspired by the story of Souha Bechara, a Lebanese woman who in 1988 tried to assassinate Antoine Lahad, leader of the South Lebanon Army. After ten years in the infamous Khiam prison, Bechara was released and wrote an autobiography about her life in Lebanon before and after the assassination attempt. That’s a powerful story in itself, but it’s just a part of this overwhelming film.

When Nawal Marwan (Lubna Azabal), who fled to Canada many years ago, dies from a stroke, a family friend (who is also an attorney) summons her two children, the twins Jeanne and Simon (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin, Maxim Gaudette), for a reading of the will. That’s when they learn that their absent father is still alive and that they have a brother; their mother’s last request was for them to find the men and give them separate letters from her. Since Jeanne and Simon had a troubled relationship with their mother, this is a lot to ask; he refuses to go back to their mother’s old country, but she does. At the same time, we learn Nawal’s story through flashbacks, starting with the day when her brothers find out that she has been with a man who’s not part of their culture, and kill him. What makes everything worse is that Nawal is pregnant…

Relevant beyond specific countries
The two stories are told simultaneously, which greatly increases tension. We don’t really understand why the twins initially are so hostile to their mother, but when we learn just how much suffering she went through as a young woman before she could leave the old country we realize that it’s a wonder she was able to pick up the pieces at all. The identity of the old country remains hidden, and for a good reason. This is not a story about specific historic events; Villeneuve and his team wanted to craft a film that is relevant beyond that. As in so many places around the world, the story pits religious fighters against each other, Christian and Muslim, and refuses to sympathize with their bloody causes, only the poor civilians who are caught in their crosshairs. Still, it’s hard not to recognize the circumstances as relating primarily to the despicable honor-killing tradition, the Lebanese civil war, and in one unforgettably gruesome sequence, the Bus Massacre of 1975 in Beirut. And that’s not a bad thing either, because even if the themes are meant to be relevant to a wider audience it doesn’t hurt to point out that they were inspired by awful real-life events. This was the film that cemented Villeneueve’s worldwide reputation as a skilful director; individual work in terms of editing and cinematography is part of the film’s success, but he’s the one holding it all together. He also knows how to use his actors to achieve as strong an effect as possible, especially Désormaeux-Poulin as the daughter who step by step finds out the truth about her mother; the camera stays focused on her, with moving results.

Nawal remains a very complex person. In the end, we are left pondering whether it was right of her to lead her children to the truth. Perhaps it’s better to remain ignorant in this case? But that’s what a movie like Incendies is for – you’re meant to exit the theater full of questions and start discussing them with your company. 

Incendies 2010-Canada-France. 130 min. Color. Produced by Luc Déry, Kim McCraw. Written and directed by Denis Villeneuve. Play: Wajdi Mouawad. Cast: Lubna Azabal (Nawal Marwan), Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin (Jeanne Marwan), Maxim Gaudette (Simon Marwan), Rémy Girard, Abdelghafour Elaaziz, Allen Altman.

Last word: “I think a good director is a good listener. I don’t know anything about war [and] I didn’t know a lot about Arabic people. So in order for me to adapt the screenplay, I had to be a listener… You have to put ego aside, which is difficult for a filmmaker. Half the movie I re-wrote while talking to actors there. And the challenge for me was to be faithful to Arabic culture, but I think we succeeded.” (Villeneuve, Indiewire)

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