Incendies is a powerful experience. It’s a carefully crafted parable that injects the audience with the horrific possibilities of the world, then attempts to remind us that a personal peace is worth pursuing.
Incendies follows three protagonists all revealing the same story from different timelines. We start with two twins, Simon (Maxim Gaudette) and Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) as they listen to the details of their mother’s will. The will instructs Simon and Jeanne to deliver two letters, one addressed to their Father (who they thought was dead) and one to their brother (whom they didn’t know existed). Their search takes them to Lebanon, but their journey is to find out who their mother was. The details they uncover coincide with scenes of their mother, Narwal Marwan (Lubna Azabal), living each clue they discover.
Part of what makes Incendies so compelling is the way it is told. Simon and Jeanne don’t know who their mother was, and neither do we. We don’t know much about Simon and Jeanne either, except that Simon is a bit juvenile and rebellious against his mother, and Jeanne is a solitary person. It’s a small gamble to begin a dramatic mystery with so little to relate to because the film has to make us want to discover more. Incendies works because it juxtaposes Narwal’s harrowing history to Simon and Jeanne’s investigation.
The ignorance and innocence of Simon and Jeanne act as a window into experiencing an unknown culture and history. They are as much removed from their Mother’s history as we are, but Incendies is more interested in conveying what history feels like rather than educating. The movie is based on the play Scorched by Wajdi Mouad. When Mouaud was six years old he witnessed Christian militia machinegun a bus full of Palestinians. As a child he wouldn’t have understood the “why” of the situation, but focused on what it felt like. Scorched is his relation of that experience, and it is still poignantly felt in Incendies.
This is also why some scenes in Incendies are untranslated. In one scene where Jeanne enters a home filled with Lebanese women they are gracious and smile. Jeanne is invited in for tea. She is smiled at, even revered a little; it excites them to have an exotic traveler from Canada in their home. A woman who speaks French begins to translate Jeanne’s inquiries. Jeanne mentions “Narwal Marwan” and shows a picture of her mother. We see one translation that says Narwal Marwan was a disgrace, then the thirteen women heatedly screech at each other. Jeanne is asked to leave.
Despite all the cultural hatred, murder, and emotionally fractured families, Incendies reminds us of peace through its imagery. The first thing we see are trees in the wind; still trunks, and periodic gusts that rustle the leaves like waves from a tide. This imagery is revisited so often it seems like a mantra, ensuring we remember calm. Eventually Incendies puts words to this imagery, but by then the image has faded.
One of the promotional posters for Incendies shows Narwal Marwan’s face against the backdrop of rising clouds of smoke from a vehicle on fire. Her expression suggests profound change – irrevocably scorched – the same as the earth below that vehicle. When Incendies ended in my theatre, people didn’t pack up their things or hurry out. They remained seated, like a gesture of respect out of what they had witnessed.