Sunday, 11 May 2014

Incendies ("Scorched", 2011, Canada, French/Arabic)

Digging up the past

RATING: 8/10

"One plus one, does it make one?"

Denis Villeneuve directs a melodrama based on the civil war in Lebanon in the 1970s-1990s and the domino effect on the life of a particular woman and her children, based on the play by Wajdi Mouawad. 

Director: Denis Villeneuve | Writers: Denis Villeneuve and Valérie Beaugrand-Champagne and based on “Incendies” by Wajdi Mouawad Actors: Lubna Azabal, Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin, Maxim Gaudette, Rémy Girard and Allen Altman | Cinematographer: André Turpin | Studiomicro_scope ProducersLuc Déry and Kim McCraw.

One sentence description: A journey of discovery and tragedy.
One (long) sentence review: Highly charged premise, great script, superb acting and if not for unnecessary twists, would be a tremendous achievement. 
Watch it if…You like a melodrama that spans decades and 1,000s of miles.
Don’t watch it if…You like it all wrapped up in a neat bow. 
Best thing about the film…Azabal’s star turn as Nawal.

This is a complex film about, among other things, the lives of women caught up in events caused by men, and how men have historically sought to control women’s bodies. But then it’s also about religious bigotry, womanhood, conflict, love and vengeance.  Bigotry that creates a conflict, motherhood that refuses to submit in this conflict, love that embraces forgiveness, but also vengeance wreaked by a woman devastated by grief. In fact, like the 2013 film Philomena, it’s about institutionalised horrors inflicted on mothers in a less civilised time and how we’re still picking up the pieces. The road trip at the centre of this film is the mother saying to her children: “I’m a woman and not just your mother…I lived, loved and lost too”.

The opening scene is something we only appreciate at the very end, of a bloodied and bruised young boy having his hair shaven off. It is a powerful and mysterious image about a boy about to be lost to fighting for a militia in the internecine conflict afflicting an anonymous Middle Eastern country (modelled on Lebanon). The film is in Arabic and French and we follow two timelines: twins Jeanne and Simon Marwan in the present day (in Canada) and their mother Nawal in the 1970s (in Lebanon). Nawal has just died and left Jeanne and Simon instructions to find their father and brother and give them envelopes prepared by her notary, upon completion of which they themselves will have some information released (and some inheritance, I suppose). Except Jeanne and Simon had no idea the former was alive and that the latter existed at all. And so begins a familial odyssey for the twins, where Jeanne first and Simon next travel to their mother country to trace these people.

Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin and Maxim Gaudette

My view is that this is an excellent film that had the potential to be truly great, but squandered this potential due to a couple of miscalculations (more later). The film has the feel of a travelogue and mystery packed into a narrative about the Christian-Muslim conflict in Lebanon between 1975-1990. Despite the explosive setting, however, the film doesn’t overplay the music or characters’ reactions but allows the viewer to make up their own mind. The film is superbly shot and the acting is off the charts, while the locales and sets seemed authentic (but then this reviewer is not from Lebanon). The plot is eventually decided on the location and time of the birth of two children, which is exactly as fascinating and mysterious as it sounds. However, this central promise suffers from a couple of gigantic miscalculations and an unnecessary twist, all of which prevents the film being considered a classic.

Lubna Azabal
In the 1970s, meanwhile, Nawal experiences one personal tragedy after another: [MILD SPOILER BEGINS] first, she becomes pregnant and tries to elope with a Muslim refugee. Unfortunately, her brothers intercept them and kill her lover and before they can kill her for ‘sullying the family’s honour’, Nawal’s grandmother intervenes. However, she still has to give up her son because it just wouldn’t do for a Christian to have a Muslim’s child, particularly out of wedlock. However, the crafty old gran places 3 fairly deep stab marks on the baby’s foot (this looked painful) so that Nawal would be able to find him later. The grandma also urges her to get out of their village and go study in the city and seek him out when she finishes. She does this, but a few years later, the civil war starts proper and her father takes the family ‘up the mountains’ for safety. However, Nawal knows she has to find her son first, and she embarks on a journey that takes her through wartime atrocities and considerable personal tragedy. [MILD SPOILER ENDS]

What feels most original about this film is that it shows a journey that Jeanne and Simon undertake in order to better understand their mother as a human being, rather than just a mother. In doing so, Jeanne learns about her mother’s ordeal in trying to find her first child, how she wreaked vengeance on a militia commander responsible for killing Muslims on a bus she was travelling with (including a child she was trying to protect). In fact, the women’s sisterhood is a persistent theme throughout this film: Nawal’s grandmother saves her and her son’s life at the beginning, Nawal tries to protect the daughter on the bus, a female nurse saves the lives of Nawal’s twins and even returns them to her when she is released. The kindnesses of women abound, while the atrocities of men also abound: we see Nawal’s first son become a sniper for Muslim militias, then a torturer for Christians when he is arrested. As an orphan, he didn’t know whether his lineage was Christian or Muslim, so he became a pawn for more powerful men.

I’m not sure Jeanne and Simon get to learn about the incident with the bus in the South, which is a shame, because that incident was clearly the defining moment for Nawal. Quick recap: Nawal was looking for her son and taking clues as she went from place to place, and in the midst of it all, she finds herself on a bus of Muslims. Christian militia find the bus and kill everyone on board, except her, as she reveals herself to be a Christian. Before this, however, as Nawal is leaving the bus, she pretends that a child (a Muslim) is actually her daughter, so that she may atleast be able to save her. The child’s mother understands and plays along, but as the bus is set on fire, the child reveals her horror at seeing her real mother burning in the bus and exposes the lie. In a strangely beautiful yet distressing shot, we see a panoramic view of the child running towards the burning bus and a soldier nonchalantly pulling out his gun and shooting her. Nawal breaks down on her knees, in a lengthy shot that brings home the now real cruelty of war.

After this, Nawal starts working for the Christian militia leader on whose orders the soldiers set the bus alight and finding her slot, assassinates him. She is then jailed for 15 years in a notorious prison in the South (Kfar Ryat), where she is persistently tortured and raped by a man called Abou Tariq (presumably so that she may reveal details about Chamseddine). This is where the film takes a huge circular turn – because it turns out Abou Tariq is actually the very son she lost in the 1970s, and she has, therefore, been raped by her own son. What’s worse, she then becomes pregnant by him, with the twins Jeanne and Simon. Normally, babies born in the prison are thrown into the nearby river, but a kindly nurse saves them and gives them back to her when she gets out. The twins, who had assumed they were born in Canada, take an absolute age to put all this together. This is the film's fundamental problem: if Abou Tariq was born in 1975, how could he be of an age to rape her by the time the twins are born? The timing is off by atleast 10-15 years and therefore this aspect of the film simply does not ring true. For this to be true, Abou Tariq would have to be atleast 20 years older than the twins and Nawal would have to be atleast 60 by 2009, which she doesn't seem to be.

One day, fate contrives to put Nawal and Nihad, her first son, in the same swimming pool in the same city on Canada, and Nawal sees the 3 dots on Nihad’s foot, confirming that it was him. Then she sees his face: he is About Tariq. She has the realisation that she had been raped by her own son and this sends her catatonic, which was perhaps too melodramatic but a somewhat necessary plot device. Ultimately, she uses the ‘quest’ she sends Jeanne and Simon on as a way for them to discover naturally what she already knew. But atleast they came to understand her at the end: a loving but strong woman in an extremely difficult situation.


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