Friday, March 18, 2011

Review: "Incendies"

Incendies is the the most acclaimed Canadian film of 2010, having won eight Genie Awards (the Canadian Oscar) and receiving a much deserved nomination for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards (losing to Denmark's In A Better World). Denis Villeneuve's film, based on Wajdi Mouawad's 2005 stage play, is a heart-wrenching portrait of family secrets with an incredible central performance by Lubna Azabal. It is incredibly disappointing that Canadian films do not receive widespread recognition in our own country. So many Canadian films are low budget and are only given a limited release in larger cities. Villeneuve's previous film,Polytechnique (2009), was met with similar acclaim, was screened at the Cannes Film Festival and won nine Genie Awards, but it hardly entered the public consciousness outside of Quebec. There is a considerable amount of cinematic talent in Quebec. Xavier Dolan, a twenty-one year old Quebec writer/director, won three awards at Cannes in 2009 for his film J'ai tué ma mère (I Killed My Mother), but his second film Les Amours Imaginaires (2010) has failed to gain distribution despite also premiering at Cannes. The most publicized Canadian film of 2010 was Barney's Version, based on Canadian author Mordecai Richler's semi-autobiographical novel. Why did it receive the most press? It stars Paul Giamatti (who won a Golden Globe), Dustin Hoffman, Minnie Driver and the under appreciated Rosamund Pike. It is easier to sell a mediocre film with big names rather than an outstanding Quebecois film (that is in both French and Arabic). Regardless of the problems with Canadian cinema, Incendies is a must-see film. Its subject matter makes the film hard to watch, and while Villeneuve controls the tempo of the film, it is the three central actors who navigate the emotional complexities with considerable aplomb.

When Nawan Marwal (Azabal) passes away in Montreal she requests that her children, twins Jeanne (Mélissa Désarmeaux-Poulin) and Simon (Maxim Gaudette), find their father and their brother and deliver a letter to each before she will permit them to give her a proper burial. The problem is that Jeanne and Simon had no knowledge of having a brother and believed that their father had died in the Middle East many years ago. Simon wants nothing to do with Nawan's request and sees it as further proof of his mother's insanity. Jeanne, however, sees it as an opportunity to honour their mother and discover her past. Jeanne travels to the Middle East on her own and as she attempts to uncover her mother's past we see, through flashbacks, her mother's life before settling in Canada. As a young girl Nawan, a Christian, became pregnant. She had shamed her family and her brothers killed her lover and threatened to kill her. She was saved by her grandmother and agreed to send her child to an orphanage and to go to the city to study at the university. But soon a religious war threatens to destroy the country. Nawan finds herself in a very compromising position and her will to survive eventually finds her imprisoned. Meanwhile Jeanne finds it very difficult to gain much traction and when she encounters members of her mother's extended family they refuse to speak about such a disgraceful woman. Jeanne eventually turns to Simon and he joins his sister in the Middle East. They both discover the horrible truths about Nawan's life and about their own lives.

As a film, Incendies is rife with important plot points and revelations. Denis Villeneuve paces his film expertly and this allows the film to flow naturally. These key moments in the film are neither forced nor unbelievable. The bulk of the praise must go to Villeneuve, who won the Best Director Genie Award, but he is also responsible for adapting Wajdi Mouawad's screenplay. Having never seen the stage play, I wonder how it navigated the great number of settings seen in the film. Martin Morrow, film critic for the CBC, criticized the film in favour of the film. I have never been a strong supporter of CBC's film reviews, but in this instance I feel like the writer is too inclined to compare one medium to another. It is easy to find fault in a film adaptation when you feel such devotion to its source material. The film is grim and often disturbing, but there is a beautiful sense of hope and peace at the end of the film. Incendies weaves the stories of Nawan's youth with Jeanne and Simon's search with great emotional cohesiveness. Lubna Azabal breathes such life into Nawan and I wish that there had been more interplay between her and Mélissa Désarmeaux-Poulin, who has the arduous task of delivering a performance that emotionally parallels Nawan's youth. It is not always easy finding great Canadian films in theatres, but Incendies is a treasure and I hope that in the near future Canadian films will be afforded more promotion and publicity.

My rating: 4 stars out of 4.

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