The Academy Award-nominated Incendies, by Quebecois filmmaker Denis Villeneuve, unforgettably portrays the Lebanese civil war as an operatic Greek tragedy.
While the symbolism and lessons on morality may be heavy-handed, there are very powerful scenes that leave the viewer grappling with the film’s devastating conclusion long after the credits roll.
Incendies, adapted from Wajdi Mouawad’s play of the same name, centers around the story Nawal Marwan. Living in exile in Montreal, Nawal originally hails from a Christian village in the fictional country of “Fuad” — a thinly-veiled Lebanon.
When she passes away after falling mysteriously silent, Nawal’s twin adult children are read her unorthodox will by a notary — who is also their late mother’s employer and only friend. The will stipulates that Nawal is to be buried naked and face-down, “away from the world,” until her children are able to deliver two letters — one to the father they believed was dead, and the other to a brother they never knew existed.
The twin daughter, Jeanne, a mathematician, unhesitatingly embarks to solve this riddle, which is presented as if it were a mathematical equation. Meanwhile her brother, Simon, is content to leave their mother’s history buried in her homeland, foreign to them both. “I feel so fucking peaceful!” Simon tells Jeanne as he kicks their truck outside the notary’s office after hearing their mother’s last wishes. Jeanne travels alone to “Fuad” with no leads on their mother’s past besides a small photograph of Nawal and her passport, but unravels more of her tangled story as she pulls at the threads.
Jeanne’s journey through “Fuad” is paralleled with flashbacks of her mother’s life, as Nawal undertakes a search of her own. Whether a particular scene depicts the past or present is initially ambiguous, as Nawal and Jeanne are identical from the back, emphasizing that the conflicts of Nawal’s past are important to Jeanne’s present.
Nawal embarks on a perilous search to find her son who was given up for adoption after a tragic affair that left the son’s father, a Palestinian refugee, dead — and Nawal expelled from her village. During Nawal’s journey, the civil war explodes and she becomes both a victim and a combatant — as well as does her son, whom she describes as “swallowed up by the war.”
Simon eventually travels to “Fuad” to find Jeanne with the intention of returning home with her straight away. Uninterested in helping Jeanne deliver the letters, Simon is resentful of the opening of Pandora’s box with the reading of his mother’s will. But it is Simon — not his sister — who solves the mathematical problem of their family history and discovers the unspeakable truth that caused their mother to go silent in her final days.
However ugly, the truth brings Simon and Jeanne together. Their characters’ journey gives complexity to the otherwise shallow moral of the tale, that violence begets violence. Sometimes delivered with the finesse of a sledgehammer, it is hard to not roll one’s eyes at certain plot points in the film. But the actors’ performances, the beauty of the cinematography and soundtrack help pull Incendies back from the brink.
The viewer does have to suspend a lot of disbelief while watching the film. The allegory is what is important here, and the underdeveloped characters are just there to drive the plot. But certain aspects are hard not to question.
For example, part of Nawal’s story is borrowed from the true life of Soha Bechara, the Lebanese communist from a Christian family who attempted to assassinate the commander of the South Lebanon Army — the force that collaborated with Israel during its occupation of the southern part of the country.
Nawal endures the years of solitary confinement and torture that Bechara did. But it is hard to imagine that Bechara would have been able to live a life of anonymity living under her real name in Canada. Such a high-profile act has made Bechara a living legend, so it is unbelievable that Nawal’s children wouldn’t have been aware of this part of her past — and that her name would not be instantly recognizable when Jeanne asks about her in “Fuad.”
The film is so strongly rooted in references to Lebanon — from the Ein al-Rammaneh bus massacre of Palestinian refugees to the notorious al-Khiam prison — one wonders why the story is set in a real Canada but fictional Middle Eastern country. The filmmaker has said that this was done to make the film a universal and “apolitical” story not mired in the specifics of a certain country. But the film is obviously about the particular case of Lebanon, and the lack of context about what created the conditions for the civil war causes the film’s conclusion about the perversity of sectarianism and factionalism to feel cliche.
The Lebanese civil war cannot be boiled down to the message of “an eye for an eye makes the world go blind.” But this is what we’re left with when there is so little political context. Nawal joins the militia that opposes the Christian ultra-nationalists massacring Palestinians in the south because she wants “to teach the enemy what life taught me.” The fate of Nawal’s lost son reinforces the idea that during Lebanon’s civil war, people found themselves fighting on any side for totally arbitrary reasons — a naive, simplistic way of understanding the country’s history.
But the plot’s final, dark twist does give potency to the film’s anti-sectarian theme, underlined by Nawal’s last words to her children: “Your story begins with a promise to break the chain of silence … nothing means more than being together.”
Togetherness cannot happen, Incendies viscerally teaches, until the sins of the past are exposed to the glare of today’s sun.
Maureen Clare Murphy is managing editor of The Electronic Initfada.