Monday, May 30, 2011


(Image: Sony Pictures Classics)

     The American writer and misanthrope Ambrose Bierce would have appreciated the savage genius of Wajdi Mouawad, the Lebanese-born author whose play, Scorched, has been adapted into a profoundly horrifying film by Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve. Set against the backdrop of a nameless sectarian conflict, Incendies is a harrowing descent into an antechamber of hell that could only exist amid the chaos and brutality of civil war.

The excruciating ironies of brother against brother, father against son, seem to be among the inevitable consequences of such catastrophes. In Bierce's Civil War short story, A Horseman in the Sky, a Confederate soldier shoots a Union officer, only to realize that he has killed his own father.  An equally devastating irony lies at the heart of Villeneuve's film: Incendies will sear your soul.

The film opens in a fictional Middle Eastern country, at the height of an armed conflict patterned after the idiot swarm of butcheries euphemistically known as the Lebanese Civil War. In a bare stone house, a group of dirty, ragged boys--prisoners or refugees, judging from the cuts and scrapes--are having their heads shaved by a group of armed militants. The boys are being inducted into the militia, like it or not. Radiohead's dreamily haunting You and Whose Army swells on the soundtrack as the boys' shorn locks drop to the floor. 

One stoic young boy bears an unusual set of marks on the heel of his right foot: three faded black dots. Innocuous as they are, the cryptic marks will eventually be the key to unlocking a shattered family's unimaginable secret--a mystery as dark and disturbing as anything by Sophocles. Or Bierce.


Incendies is divided into chapters, each heralded by the emblazoning of a title in stark, blood-red letters. The first chapter, "Les Jumeaux" (i.e., "The Twins") opens with an attractive but strained young couple assembled in the offices of French Canadian civil notary Jean Lebel (Remy Girard). They are brother and sister Simon (Maxim Gaudette) and Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) Marwan, here for the reading of their mother's will.

"Testament of Dr. Nawal Marwan," Lebel states, and begins reading the will. As Jeanne and Simon grimly listen, Lebel announces that the property, money and furniture will all be left to them, to dispose of as they see fit. Everything seems normal until Lebel comes to the burial instructions:

"Bury me without a coffin, naked and without prayers, face turned toward the ground, face first against the world...No stone will be placed on my grave, and my name engraved nowhere. No epitaph for those who do not keep their promises....A child is a knife in the Throat. We do not remove it easily."

Jeanne and Simon are shocked by the cryptic injunctions, and are further stunned by a posthumous revelation: that their presumably dead father--whom they have never met--is still alive. What's more, they have a brother they never knew existed. 

Lebel gives them two envelopes: One is to be delivered by Jeanne to their father; the other is to be given by Simon to the unknown brother. The only thing known about the two men is that they live in the Middle East.

"We have a large family now," Simon acidly remarks later on. "Did she also mention a dog? In large families, there's also a dog. Will we also have to find the dog?" 

Embarking for the Middle East to find their mysterious father and sibling, Jeanne and Simon must first reconstruct the missing years of their mother's life. For Jeanne, who is finishing her postgraduate studies in mathematics--a field that her professor describes as "the land of loneliness"--the riddle appeals to her intellect as well as her heart, and she sets out to solve the mystery with the curiosity and determination of a Gallic Nancy Drew. 

"Now you enter an entirely different adventure," Jeanne's professor had said to one of her classes. "The subject will be intractable problems that will always lead to other problems just as intractable. People around you will repeatedly tell you that your struggles are in vain. You'll have no argument to defend yourself, for the work will be exhausting and complex."

The words are strangely prescient, foreshadowing the difficult truths that Jeanne and Simon will discover as they gradually unearth the details of their mother's astonishing past, from having had an illegitimate child with a Palestinian refugee--a social anathema, since her family was Lebanese Christian--to having committed a political assassination

For Jeanne, the first sign that something is terribly wrong occurs when she finds her mother's village. Bright-eyed and hopeful, she hardly expects trouble from the welcoming women of the village who smile and offer her tea. When Jeanne tells them who she is, their faces turn dark. Angry words are exchanged:"If you're the daughter of Nawal Marwan, you're not welcome here."

As Incendies unspools its terrible mysteries, the revelations seismically alter Jeanne and Simon's sense of self, while leaving the audience reeling. The final incomprehensible twist, when it comes, is not so much O.Henry as Oldboy, the 2003 Korean film which Roger Ebert described as "powerful...not because of what it depicts, but because of the depths of the human heart which it strips bare."  

In an article in Now magazine, director Villeneuve insists that in spite of the film's brutalities--a ferocious assault on a busload of civilians, for example--the film is really about peace. "Mouawad (the playwright) wants to talk about anger without creating anger," explains Villeneuve.

Whatever the intent, the effect is deeply unsettling.The jaw-dropping climax of Incendies--as haunting as the still-chilling climax of Polanski's Chinatown--leaves us feeling a little like the pathetic, oblivious toddler in Ambrose Bierce's short story Chicamauga, who, while wandering amongst the post-battle carnage, stumbles, uncomprehending, onto the disembrained body of his own mother:

The child moved his little hands, making wild, uncertain gestures. He uttered a series of inarticulate and indescribable cries--something between the chattering of an ape and the gobbling of a turkey--a startling, soulless, unholy sound, the language of a devil. The child was a deaf mute. Then he stood motionless, with quivering lips, looking down upon the wreck.

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