Sunday, May 15, 2011

Incendies - Movie Review

Today I digress from the usual themes of my blog, to discuss a movie.

My wife and I just saw the Canadian film Incendies directed by Denis Villeneuve and based on a play by Wajdi Mouawad.  This movie portrays the journey by Jeanne and Simon Marwan to discover the traumatic life-history of their recently deceased mother, Nawal Marwan.  After immigrating from an Arab country, Nawal had worked in Montreal for many years as a secretary for a notary, Lebel, and uneventfully raised her twin children.  At the reading of Nawal’s will, the notary hands two envelopes to the two children.  Their mother, through the will, instructs her children to deliver one envelope to their father whom they thought was deceased and the second envelope to a brother whom they did not know existed.  Jeanne travels to the country of her mother’s birth (a thinly disguised Lebanon) to fulfill her mother’s wishes.  Soon after, her brother Simon - reluctantly - joins her at the insistence of Lebel who comes along as well.

Through a series of flashbacks Nawal’s history is disclosed.  Nawal was born into a Christian family, but as a young woman fell in love with a Muslim.  Through Nawal’s eyes we observe brutal Christian-Muslim warfare with reprisal mass killings on both sides. We also observe the recruitment of child soldiers to participate in the violence.  The story has many twists and turns, and it would not be fair to divulge the resolution of the mystery which Jeanne and Simon ultimately untangle.

One of the most sympathetic characters in the movie is Lebel who takes on the role of father figure to Jeanne and Simon – he helps orchestrate the self-discovery journey of the children.

One theme of the film is how environment and culture shape us.  Nawal and her two children lived uneventful lives in Montreal; her children regarded their mother just as a bit strange and difficult. Nawal’s prior life and behavior were unimaginable in the context of city life in Montreal – and indeed until she died her children knew nothing of her past. Nawal was shaped by her past, but her children were shaped by Montreal.

While revelations in the movie are truly shocking, the message of the movie is perhaps hopeful.  Individuals are not born good or evil, but family and the surrounding culture can lead them to commit horrors on the one hand or, on the other hand, can lead them to be productive members of civil society. Personal redemption (in the non-religious sense) may be possible. Even under the worst of circumstances, some individuals can stand up against the evil that surrounds them.

If you have a stomach for the violence, the movie is worth seeing.

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