“Incendies” has a familiar plot used in many mystery fictions. The odd instructions are delivered to the characters with no explanation. The journey begins eventually, and the mystery is peeled away step by step. While following their path, we begin to sense that there will be the unexpected answer at the end of journey.
With this storytelling device, the movie reveals the sad, painful personal past scorched by the civil conflict in some unidentified country in the Middle East. If you have watched the movies such as “Waltz with Bashir”(2008), it is easy for you to deduce that the country shown in the film is the fictionalized version of Lebanon, but that is not important because the senseless cycle of violence between conflicting people has always resulted in the same consequences; pain, sorrow, and hatred entangled together in the human hearts. The movie shows such emotional scars in a quiet but devastating way, and it also calmly presents the way of overcoming them to cut off the thread of hatred.
Shortly after the death of their mother Nawal(Lubna Azabal), twin brother and sister, Jeanne(Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) and Simon(Maxim Gaudettte), meet the notary Lebel(Rémy Girard), for whom Nawal has worked as his secretary for about 20 years. The request in her will surprises her children with her hidden past. Before dying in the hospital after suddenly fallen into some catatonic state, she left two letters. The one is for the twin’s father; Jeanne is instructed to find him and deliver it to him. The other one is for the twin’s hidden brother; Simon is instructed to do the same thing like her sister. Until their missions are accomplished, Nawal’s body will remain buried without coffin or tombstone.
Jeanne and Simon are confounded by this revelation. While living a new life with them in Canada for a long time, Nawal seldom mentioned about her past to them(the twins thought their father was dead during the war in their mother’s homeland). Angry and confused for this, Simon refuses the request. In contrast, although she has been distant from her mother for a while, Jeanne decides to go to her mother’s homeland to find their father after advised by her advisor professor in her graduate school not to ignore this matter.
The movie goes back and forth between Jeanne’s journey and Nawal’s long, hurtful journey. When she was young, Nawal fell in love with a Muslim guy, and she got pregnant by him. Her Christian family certainly did not approve of that; after their failed attempt to run away, her lover was shot by her brothers for the family’s honor, and she had to leave behind her baby right after she bore him. Before separated from him, she promised to him she would find him again.
However, several years later, when she studied in the university, the sectarian conflict between Christians and Muslims got more intensified, and her hometown became a war zone. None the less, Nawal was determined to find her son for keeping her promise. Though well aware of the dangers, she went back to her hometown, and that was the start of a long ordeal she had to struggle through – it was impossible for her to stay in the middle in this conflict.
There are several striking moments to depict the horrors of war in the film. The director Denis Villeneuve, whose screenplay based on the acclaimed play by Wajdi Mouawad, handles the brutality in his movie with restraint and conciseness, as shown in the gut-wrenching scene where Nawal is forced to save herself in a shameful way from sudden brutal mass killing by a militia group. In the opening sequence crucial in the story, Radiohead’s “You and Whose Army?” is effectively used in the soundtrack against what is shown on the screen, and this memorable moment is chillingly connected to the scene where the boys are attacked by a sniper not so older than them.
Villeneuve deftly moves the story between the past and present. Compared to the violent past, Nawal’s homeland at present is relatively peaceful, but there is still the conflict, and there are still the shadows of the past which people do not like to talk about. Nawal’s family members do not forget what she did even after so many years have passed. When Jeanne meets the former prison guard who knew her mother as prisoner, he is very reluctant to tell her what happened to her mother, while emphasizing that he has been a school janitor.
Later in the story, Simon finally joins her sister with Lebel. Their search is continued, and, in the end, there is the shocking truth waiting for them. Of course, I will not tell you what it is, but I have to say this; I already guessed what would be revealed based on some storytelling logics, but it was really devastating to see how the movie silently reveals that horrible secret to the characters with the emotionally shattering effect.
By the way, while watching the last scene, I wondered about the plausibility of the story because I was a little bothered by some small calculation based on the one tiny detail shown in that scene(Maybe I was wrong about that, but I cannot go into the details due to spoiler problems). In addition, the story relies on the coincidences a little too much. For instance, Jeanne and Simon’s journey could be aborted with the dead end by any chance. Come to think of it, it is very lucky that there are enough surviving people and documents to lead them to the arriving point. I know it would have been really hard for Nawal to tell the truth, but could she just leave one letter to her children for explaining everything?
Nevertheless, the story works well on the emotional level with the haunting performance by Lubna Azabal, who is convincing both as Young Nawal and Old Nawal. Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin and Maxim Gaudettte are also good as the other half of the story, and Remy Girard gives an interesting performance as a kind, courteous man with the strong professional ethics he firmly sticks to.
I remember I was at a loss to explain the Korean word “Han” to my Far-flung correspondent friend Grace Wang during Ebertfest 2010. I checked Wikipeida later and discovered that it can be defined as “feeling of unresolved resentment against injustices suffered, a sense of helplessness because of the overwhelming odds against one, a feeling of acute pain in one’s guts and bowels, making the whole body writhe and squirm, and an obstinate urge to take revenge and to right the wrong—all these combined.” Nawal can be described as a woman full of this complex feeling. Her heart was burned by so many pains and sorrows in her past – and her fate was as cruel to her as the Greek tragedy.
So long as one retains one’s han, one is still human. But modern society more often churns out feelingless robots, who have lost even anger. The middle east is such a confusing tangle. Han is a lovely word!
SC: Being human also makes it possible to overcome logically intractable problems between people.