Incendies is a film by Canadian director, Denis Villeneuve, based on the play, Scorched, by Wajdi Mouawad. It is in French and Arabic. It was nominated for an Academy Award for best foreign language film, but it lost to In a Better World. I find this baffling, for Incendies is clearly a vastly superior film.
Nawal Marwan (Lubna Azabal) is a Lebanese immigrant living in Montreal, where she works as a secretary for a notary, Lebel (Rémy Girard). After Nawal dies, Lebel reads her will to her twin children, Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) and Simon (Maxim Gaudette). She tells them that their father is still alive and that they have a brother. They had previously not known about these things. She tells them that before they can place a marker over her grave, Jeanne must find her father and Simon must find his brother. Simon refuses to go along with this, but Jeanne decides to go to Lebanon to find her father. The film jumps back and forth between scenes from Nawal’s life and Jeanne’s search. The story is complicated, and I won’t go into any more detail about it except to say that it combines the themes of how the past remains with us, the desire for revenge, and the need to find love. I found this film powerful and moving, and quite unlike any other movie I’ve seen.
In his critique of this film, As’ad AbuKhalil claims: “Arabs in the movie come across as barbarians”. That was not the impression that I got from watching this film. Yes, there are some Arab Christian militiamen who do behave like barbarians. (“Barbarians” is actually putting it mildly.) However, most of the Arab characters in this film come across as sympathetic. Nawal is actually portrayed as a heroic person. (Strangely, AbuKhalil says nothing about the fact that this film is based on a play by a Lebanese.) AbuKhalil also complains that the characters never mention Israel. This is true. It is, for example, implied that the prison in which Nawal is raped and tortured is run by the Israelis, but the film never makes this explicitly clear. I suspect that these omissions may have something to do with the fact that most of the scenes were shot in Jordan, which has a tense, but “friendly”, relationship with Israel. (I suspect that the reason this film failed to win an Academy Award is that some academy members picked up on the anti-Israeli implications of the prison scenes.) AbuKhalil also complains that the film contains “disturbing thoughts and twists”. Well, yeah, but the same could be said about King Lear and The Sound and the Fury. We live in a world in which disturbing things happen, so art inevitably reflects this. AbuKhalil often makes valid criticisms of the way Arabs are portrayed in the Western media, but in this case I think he went off the rails.
I highly recommend seeing this film.