Canadian epic INCENDIES is Copernicus' favorite flick from TIFF!
The write-up of INCENDIES in the TIFF festival guide did not grab me, probably because they could only describe the first few minutes of the film so as not to give away the major twists. But after hearing some good buzz, including the rumor that it will probably be Canada’s selection for Best Foreign Film, and seeing it on some “movies to watch at TIFF” lists, I decided to give it a shot. Boy, I’m glad I did. Adapted from an acclaimed play by Wajdi Mouawad and directed by Denis Villeneuve, INCENDIES is epic, spanning two generations, a war, and several cities and villages scattered across two continents. It is a deeply personal story involving a series of mysteries, a journey of discovery, shocking revelations, and life-and-death drama. It is by far my favorite film of the festival, and probably the best film I’ve seen all year (with the possible exception of SCOTT PILGRIM, which is so different that it is just impossible to compare the two).
From the opening scene of INCENDIES, you know you are in for something special. It is a slow zoom in at what looks to be an extreme Madrassa, or possibly a war camp, of boys getting their heads shaved set to a Radiohead’s “You and Whose Army.” The focus is on one boy in particular, and his stare, directly into the camera, is haunting. The meaning of this scene won’t become clear until much later in the film. Immediately after, we cut to a notary telling a twin brother and sister that their mother, Nawal, who has just passed away, has left them two letters. In one, she tells them that their father, who they both thought was dead, is actually alive. The girl, Jeanne, must find him and deliver a letter to him. In the other letter the mother reveals that the twins have a brother they didn’t know about, and the boy, Simon, must deliver a letter to him. She gives no clues as to how to go about this – they only have a single picture of their mother when she was young to go on.
The twins think their mother is basically crazy, and the son refuses to participate. But the daughter feels duty-bound to take this opportunity to learn more about her heritage. So she begins her quest, and starts to uncover the secret life her mother had before she moved to Canada. Meanwhile, we cut to the mother when she was young, and her story is shown intercut with the modern story of the twins. I won’t give anything away, but it is safe to say that the mother was a participant in, and survivor of, gruesome events and a savage Christian-Muslim war.
One reason INCENDIES is so compelling is that it is told as a mystery and a series of jaw-dropping revelations about the epic struggle of one woman to survive under horrible circumstances. In the process, the film comments on the treatment of women in Muslim society, “honor” killings, religious warfare, the construction of identity, and dark secrets. It would be easy for the film to fall into the trap of being didactic and preachy under these circumstances, but it never does, mainly because these things are just part of the landscape – obstacles that operate on the characters that seem absolutely genuine. Nor does the film take sides in the war – this is a human-scale drama, where the horrors unfolding around the characters can take many forms.
An epic film like this, spanning decades, and requiring gut-wrenching emotion, can only be pulled off if the performances are outstanding. They are. Lubna Azabal takes center stage as the young mother, who starts off innocent and in love, but is utterly transformed by series of personal unholy devastations. She delivers one of the best performances in recent memory. Meanwhile, Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin and Maxim Gaudette are magnificent as the twins whose world is upended. The supporting cast is equally great – some of the performances are in French, some in English, and some in the local dialect of several villages in the Middle East.
The director makes some bold choices that set this film apart. The structure of the film is unconventional – it is divided into chapters, announced with bold red letters filling the screen, each with a different character at the center. Several scenes are set to Radiohead songs, which perfectly evoke a dystopian, meditative atmosphere. Thom Yorke’s wailing voice – simultaneously mournful and revelatory, could almost stand in for the Muslim call to prayer. But here it’s the diametric opposite, heralding personal discovery rather than dangerous conformist groupthink.
With a tightly woven, driving plot, captivating characters, superb acting, and bold direction, INCENDIES will surely make best-of lists in 2010. It is a rare gem that is as entertaining as it is important. I can’t wait to see it again. Fortunately, I’ll get a chance to -- in Toronto, Sony Pictures Classics picked up the film for US distribution. And I can’t wait for the next film from Denis Villeneuve. He’s a director to watch.