Incendies is a French Canadian film directed and written by Denis Villeneuve, which was adapted from a play by Wajdi Mouawad. The film, whose title is translated to Scorched, is a dual narrative about siblings uncovering their families past and the mother’s struggle for survival in times of political conflict. The very opening scene that plays Radiohead’s “You and Whose Army?” in the background, gives off a haunting feel as a room full of Middle Eastern boys are getting their heads shaved. The camera pans to a boy’s tattoo, which means little until later in the film, but it is obvious foreshadowing.
Simon and Jeanne Marwan are twins who live in Canada that are about to hear the last wishes of their mother from the reading of her will. The will said the money is to be equitably shared between the two, the furniture should be distributed by mutual agreement and all the assets will be split. Pretty straight forward until the notary hands them each an envelope that their mother instructed them to give to their father and their brother. Before the reading of the will, they had no idea their father was still alive or that they even had a brother.
The twins travel to the Middle East homeland of their mother, Nawal Marwan, on a mission to find their father and brother. The envelopes that they must deliver to previously unknown family members proves to be a blessing in disguise as they go on to discover the history of her brave and heroic mother.
Through the use of flashbacks, we get to see Nawal living in a war filled country in the Middle East. Nawal was a Christian on the South but she fell in love with a Muslim on the North. This relationship is highly frowned upon politically and religiously as the South and the North are at war with one another.
Nawal is on the North side as she tries visiting her lover as a bus full of people approaches. She could use a lift instead of walking so Nawal quickly takes off her necklace of a cross as the bus is full of Muslim people. She falls asleep on the bus only to be awakening by gun shots. The bus had been stopped by an army of Christian men. Ironically for her, they are Christians killing the Muslims on board. Luckily, she had that cross necklace to show, otherwise she would have ended up dead like all the others on the bus. Watching these turn-of-events unfold is a powerful scene.
Jeanne goes to visit her mother’s old village to get clues to where her father might be. The whole room is in an uproar when she mentions she is a part of the Marwan family. Jeanne was not aware her mother had been impregnated by a man of the rival side, thus considering the family a shame. That is just one part of the mystery she uncovers about her family.
Jeanne continues to visit the places that we see Nawal in in the flashbacks. The aftermath and rumble she sees are haunting as we know what their mother had been through. This is especially true when she visits the prison where her mother was in after she murdered a rival political leader. She finds out that her mother was tortured for 15 years and never once broke down to talk to the guards. Rather than speak she would sing to herself and was known by others in the prison as both Number 72 and “The Woman Who Sings.” Adding to the cruelty, she was raped and subsequently got pregnant just before she was released from prison.
The theme of the Incendies is evident when the mother writes, “Nothing is more important than being together.” The envelopes brought the siblings closer to their mother in a way, even though she had passed away. If was not for the envelopes they would not know who their father or brother was, but most importantly, what her mother had been through. Even though her mother could have just told them while she was alive but that would not have been nearly as good of a story.
Incendies earned a 2010 Academy award nomination for Best Foreign Film, which I felt was very deserving. The storyline was brilliantly written and the cinematography was done wonderfully, the camera placements and photography captured the mood. Luna Azabal was by far the performance that stood out the best, the rest are mostly forgettable compared to her.
One of the best qualities about Incendies is the way everything comes together at the end. It reveals the mystery with a few big twists, which would be completely ruined if I mentioned what they were. Because of the dual narrative storylines, some of the flashback scenes of their mother in danger are a little less dramatic because we know she lives through it. However, that is not a major plot point of the film, the cruelty and tragedy still have an overwhelming impact.