The opening scene has a striking image; a young boy’s head being shaved to the tune of Radiohead’s “You and Whose Army?”. It is among the many compelling moments found in Incendies, a French-Canadian production that was nominated for the 2010 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, unfortunately losing to the dismal In a Better World. It is a chilling story written for the screen and directed by Denis Villeneuve, and adapted from the play written by Wajdi Mouawad.
After Nawal (Lubna Azabal) dies, her two twins, Janine (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) and Simon (Maxim Gaudette), are bequeathed instructions to deliver two letters, one to a father whom they have never met, and a brother they never knew existed. Simon initially rebuffs the quest, but Janine chooses the mission without hesitation. The film unfolds by cutting across two time periods; the past, their mother’s journey looking for her son; and the present, where Janine follows her mother’s journey decades later.
The film places the civil war between Christians and Muslims in Lebanon as an extensive external struggle. It is a struggle that the film depicts as a curse for either religion. In this world, war surrounds everything and everyone, and Nawal, despite being given a fantastic chance to escape the memory of a child she had to give up, chose to leave the virtues of education to look for that very son. Nawal’s story explores fatalism and off-beat chances that exist in this world.
Incendies in French translates to fire in English, although the name of the English language version of the play is Scorched. Regardless, either title is fitting for the film’s content and form. Much of the violence and war in the film depicts this scorched mentality. The Lebanese civil war is shown as brutal and unforgiving, and the cinematography refuses to look away at atrocious events and mentalities shown in the film.
It is stunning how such a film that makes use of the war-torn, dry, and merciless regions of the Middle East was initially a play. Director Denis Villeneuve has placed the characters into settings that are as soulless as the violence and terrorism found in the film. Many scenes are distant and cold, making use of wide spaces and slow movement of the camera to emphasize the bleak content through form. Incendies is a stunning film with a chilling conclusion that speaks loudly, yet is told with such effortlessness that the punch lands hard, so hard that it ripples long after the film is finished.
The picture quality of Incendies is well represented by the High Definition format. While there is a lack of vibrant color in most places, the film’s depth of an impoverished nation is explored through the camera work, and this release presents the desolate world and violence remarkably. Tremendous care was taken to capture the images of this film and the Blu-ray certainly provides the spectator at home with a close rendering of the world created here.
The film’s dialogue is split between Arabic and French with English subtitles. The audio is of adequate quality, but the moments of violence are staggering. As stated before, “You and Whose Army?” makes an appearance as a leitmotif of the film, of which I cannot make meaning at this time. However, its inclusion is one of the first ways in which the film links the First-world with the Third.
While the supplemental material is merely made up of a typical director’s commentary and the theatrical trailer, the Blu-ray release contains a telling documentary. “Remembering the Ashes: Incendies Through Their Eyes” is beyond a behind-the-scenes documentary, it links the extras who worked on set in Jordan (where the scenes in Lebanon were filmed). This compelling documentary includes accounts from both children and adults, many of whom are living as refugees in Jordan from surrounding warring nations such as Iraq, Syria, Lybia, and much more. They recount their past traumas directly to the camera and they use their anxieties of the past in their brief but significant parts as extras.
How Incendies lost to In A Better World for the Foreign Oscar is no longer a mystery now. Incendies is a much tougher pill to swallow. It is bleak, contains little hope, and examines the cruelty of fate. In A Better World has a much more uplifting ending, and its themes of homegrown terrorism resonates with American audiences, and the Academy-voting members. Incendies, while primarily taking place in Lebanon, it is a world entirely unfamiliar, despite the civil war has many links to America’s current political policies. Furthermore, North African and Middle Eastern turmoil and democratic uprisings should give this film more weight nearly a year after its initial release, weight that should carry on for years to come.
Aaron Weiss lives in Savannah, Georgia and is currently a student at the Savannah College of Art & Design pursuing a Masters Degree in Cinema Studies. He also writes movie reviews and film criticism for CinemaFunk, and writes progressive rock reviews for ProgSnobs.