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Incendies - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
Directing: B+
Acting: A-
Writing: B+
Cinematography: B+
Editing: B

From the very beginning, Incendies is a little confusing. It's a Canadian film about Canadians who spend most of the film in the Middle East tracing a secret family past, and the first title card that comes up is not Incendies -- it's a couple of words that the subtitle translates as The Twins. This leads us to believe the story is focused on the brother and sister, which, okay, in the end it is, but well over half the film is then focused nearly exclusively on Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin), the sister.

After a while it finally becomes clear that there are more title cards, and they serve more as chapter titles. It's a largely unnecessary narrative device, which does little to make clear exactly where -- and when -- we are.

But Incendies is clearly intended to be a mystery, and director Denis Villeneuve succeeds with that on perhaps too many fronts. For instance, exactly where in the Middle East these people go to, and exactly which war is constantly getting referred to, are never made clear.

In a way, though, that also works for the film, as Jeanne and her brother Simon (Maxim Gaudette) have been brought up in Canada, and they also know comparatively little of the place to which they've gone to unravel the mysteries of their mother's life.

The film opens with their mother's notary reading her will to the twins. Jeanne is given an envelope to give to her father, who she did not know was still alive. Simon is given an envelope to give to a brother they never knew existed. At this point they have no idea exactly how intertwined these two people are, and neither do we.

The narrative structure of Incendies is such that, when Jeanne gets even the smallest clue as to her mother's well-kept past, we as the audience are given a whole lot more to the mother's story than Jeanne is. This is done to such a degree that Lubna Azabal, as the mother, Nawal, becomes the primary character of the film. We discover her to have been an Arab Christian who had a child with a Muslim, who is executed very early on in the film; she is thought to have disgraced the family and in effect put in exile from them. Nawal subsequently finds herself playing Muslims and Christians against each other, getting in over her head in the process, and ultimately spending some fifteen years in prison.

I can't reveal any more than that, not only because it would take far too long, but because it would spoil too many of the horrifying surprises.

Incendies is a bit curious in that it doesn't seem to have any particular political agenda, a truly rare thing among films that have any focus on Middle Eastern politics. The struggles and strife of the region merely serve as a formidable backdrop to the story at hand, which also has a strong tie to French Canada. (The languages spoken are mostly limited to French and Arabic.)

The twins, used as the device for telling Nawal's story, are engaging to a degree, but nowhere near as compelling as Nawal herself. Incendies was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, and it lost to In a Better World, which was indeed a better film, though not by a huge margin.

Incendies is thematically fresh and appropriately shocking, but the narrative structure works against it. Too often it's confusing where and when we are. But then the puzzle pieces start falling into place, and it does end in satisfyingly unexpected ways. It's perhaps not as thought-provoking as it wants to be, but it's riveting almost in spite of itself. It's not always easy to sit through, given some of the horrors it portrays -- though, thankfully, never gratuitously -- but it's still worth a look.

Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin (center) finds herself in the middle of a family mystery for the ages in 'Incendies'.

Overall: B+
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