Posted by: greercn | July 7, 2011

Incendies

It is intense, harrowing and mesmerising. Bits are depressing and exceptionally sad. There is something of the classic Greek tragedy here. Family secrets and pain run through this and it grips the viewer all the way through.

It starts in Montreal, which is always good to see on screen. Jeanne and Simon are twins and their mother has just died, leaving them letters that reveal they have another brother and a father out there, somewhere. They travel to the Middle East, to a country that is not ever named but is clearly meant to be Lebanon (despite Jordan being the actual filming location).

In flashbacks, the story behind “Incendies” gradually comes out, with beautiful segues between the present day and the past. As an example of this, we leave one character in the present in exactly the same location as we see when we go back in time to another character.

It’s artsy, based on an acclaimed play by Wajdi Mouawad and yet keeps real cinema values flowing through the excellent script and acting. Director Denis Villeneuve just gets better and better with every film and he and Mouawad and the rather wonderfully-named Valerie Beaugrand-Champagne wrote the script, with the latter billed as “script consultant”, whatever that means.

Villeneuve has a taste for the visceral, if you remember his difficult but extraordinary black and white 2009 film “Polytechnique” about the massacre of  female engineering students at the University of Montreal. He isn’t for those who get queasy, so don’t eat before you go to one of his emotion-packed movies.

The acting lifts this to the level that made it so many critics’ pick for Best Foreign Language Oscar this year, although it lost. As Nawal Marwan, Lubna Azabal gives a tour de force performance. I have never seen anything better.

As the grown up children, Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin and Maxim Gaudette are both terrific. Remy Girard is one of my favourite Quebec actors and his role as the notary is really very good.

Allen Altman, Abdelghafour Elaaziz, Mohamed Majd and Nabil Sawalha all have heart-stopping moments. If I have any criticism, it’s that melodrama takes over occasionally but it’s almost impossible to underplay the impact of the civil war at the heart of this film. Civil war is melodramatic, after all.

If Hollywood remakes this, it will be much cheerier and lots will be airbrushed. If you like realism and have a strong stomach, do see “Incendies”. There were very few people at the Stratford Picturehouse, but everyone was very moved and nobody left. The English subtitles, both for the French and the Arabic, are just superb.

Sometimes, films that are tough to watch have enormous rewards. This will haunt me. It brings a very special and new perspective to the conflicts in the Middle East. And it makes you think that, maybe, some family secrets should be kept under wraps.

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