Academy Award Winner and Foreign Film Gem ‘Incendies’ Reviewed

When many Americans think of foreign films there is an unfortunate, enduring misconception of endlessly boring and befuddling scenes only understood by the film’s director and writer and, of course, the laborious task of reading through pesky subtitles.

Incendies, this year’s Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Language Film, is a Canadian masterpiece which breaks every foreign-film hater’s stereotype (aside from the pesky subtitles). It is a heartrending tale of a woman whose spirit remains unbroken in spite of the unimaginable blows life deals her and the secrets she’s burdened with keeping. Incendies exemplifies the endurance of the human spirit against extreme odds and no sports heroes need be involved.

The movie opens in a rundown room with filthy beaten children in rags whose heads are being shaved by menacing men. The camera cuts to a boy’s heel which has 3 black dots tattooed on it. Unknowingly, the audience will follow the progression of this unfortunate boy’s life through a mother’s tragic tale of loss.

The viewer is then transported to Canada decades later where Jeanne and Simon Marwan are hearing their mother’s cryptic last will and testament and must uncover the mysteries she leaves behind after her sudden death. This leads the twins on a journey to the Middle East in search of a brother they never knew existed and father they never met.

It’s an enticing enough storyline if one doesn’t yet realize the extent of the tragedy and intolerable physical and emotional torture this story will come to reveal. Incendies makes Greek tragedies seem like children’s fairy tale fodder.

There are moments in the film where grievous acts are so artfully and poignantly conveyed it negates the need for graphic scenes to spell out the details. The writer and director, Denis Villeneuve, is so masterful in the art of suggestion that one cringes at the thought of scenes never shown.

The art of suggestion is also carried over in the unsettling political climate that is the backdrop to this story. Villeneuve purposely never mentions any specific country or political faction in order to not side-track this very realistic human story with biases for one country or political group over another.

“The play’s purpose was to delve into the subject of anger and not to fuel such anger,” Villeneuve said of Wajdi Mouawad’s stage play from which he based his screenplay.

The film’s casting is also superb. Every actor in this film plays their role with such expressive candor and emotional believability that it creates the illusion of a raw documentary rather than a fictional drama.

Notably, Lubna Azabal is amazingly convincing in her portrayal of the mother Nawal Marwan. Her onscreen intensity sustains an unbroken thread of credibility which envelops the audience completely into the depiction of this character’s woeful life.

Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin plays daughter Jeanne Marwan and looks strikingly similar to Lubna Azabal. Although this may seem an obvious casting choice, considering the two play mother and daughter, the same cannot be said for the twin brother Simon, played by Maxim Gaudette. His dissimilarity in appearance mirrors his inability to accept or understand his mother’s last wishes.

It seems like the casting of Jeanne and Nawal to look so alike was purposely planed in order to marry the odysseys each takes, as the daughter retraces the arduous steps of her mother. Also, in many flashback scenes of Nawal, which cut to scenes of Jeanne, the women appear deliberately dressed in similar clothing styles and colors, further merging their stories.

Incendies is a complex story of unspeakable tragedy depicting human nature, the Herculean human will and the transcendent love that binds a mother to her children. It’s an important story worth being told and even worth reading subtitles for.

The film will be released in New York and Los Angeles on April 22, 2011.