For my birthday last year the Other Half and I saw the film that won the 2010 Best Foreign Film Oscar, El Secreto de Sus Ojos, a suspenseful, mysterious drama set in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in Spanish with English subtitles. This year, I decided I wanted to see Incendies, which many thought should have won the 2011 Best Foreign Film Oscar (Denmark won for In a Better World),especially after hearing this review from Bob Mondello of NPR:
I can't recall seeing a film in which I have so often wondered, "My God, how must that feel?" We in the audience are meant to be as unsettled as the characters. I've heard complaints about the ending being over-the-top, but my background is live theater, and you won't hear them from me. The storytelling in Incendies strikes me as primal the way Greek tragedy is primal. Shattering. Cathartic. It is a breathtaking film.So clearly Incendies is a suspenseful, mysterious drama in French (and Arabic) with English subtitles. It was Canada's entry into the Foreign Language Oscar competition, but most of the scenes occur in an unspecified Middle Eastern country (presumed to be Lebanon).
The story begins with the reading of the will of a mother named Nawal Marwan to her surviving twin children, a boy Simon and a girl Jeanne, in a somewhat depressing Montreal notary's office on a cold, wintry day. The notary delivers two letters from Nawal to her twins, one is to be delivered to their older brother and one is to be delivered to their father. The twins are amazed: as far as they know, their father is dead, and they have never been told that they have a brother! Her mother wishes to be buried in an unmarked grave, face down until they have completed her requests of communicating these letters to her twins' brother and father. The male twin reacts with anger and storms out of the office while the female twin sobs quietly. Thus the movie begins as a mystery about family secrets.
The scene shifts to Nawal as a young woman, and we see that her "immigrant" (Palestinian?) boyfriend get attacked and killed by her brother. However we find out that Nawal is pregnant, and she eventually has a baby boy who is immediately taken away within minutes of birth. This solves the mystery of the existence a brother to the twins.
There are many more mysteries to come, however, because Nawal leaves home to go to University in the big city and finds herself in the middle of war zone. The Christians and the Muslims are fighting a civil war "in the South" and the hostilities have spread throughout the city as well. Nawal is Christian and when she finds out that that orphanages are being attacked she travels to the South to find out if she can find her son she gave up who would now be a toddler. The movie turns into a war story as Nawal witnesses horrific atrocities committed by both sides first hand and ends up in prison.
The movie then shifts again into a "fish out of water" story as we follow Jeanne, Nawal's daughter from Canada as she attempts to retrace her mother's steps a generation removed in time in order to solve the mysteries surrounding her father and her brother and comply with her mother's dying wishes. Eventually Jeanne's twin brother Simon joins her, along with the notary who had employed their mother for decades and is insistent that they do all they can to fulfill her dying wishes.
Incendies is an incredibly haunting film. You will either hate or love the final twist at the end but you will not quickly forget it. Incredibly, they were able to get the rights to one of Radiohead's most psychedelic songs, "You and Whose Army?" which is deployed to devastating effect in the film's opening scene. I would strongly urge you to see the film in the theaters, but if you miss it there add it to your Netflix queue as soon as it is released on home video. It really should not be missed.
Running Time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.
MPAA Rating: R for some strong violence and language.
Release Date: September 4, 2010.
Viewing Date: May 21, 2011.
Overall Grade: A- (4.167/4.0).