Incendies (2010)

Denis Villeneuve | 2hr 10min

There are shocking family secrets buried within the Marwan family history that are enough to make your skin crawl. Even more chilling is just how obscured they are – no one living or dead really knows the whole truth until the puzzle pieces come together in the present day, revealing a devastating reality entwined with the very being of its parents and descendants. Simply the process of uncovering these fragments of history is a hefty task unto itself, seeing twins Jeanne and Simon travel back to their deceased mother’s home country in the Middle East so they may deliver letters to a father they didn’t realise was still alive, and a brother they never knew they had. Incendies in English translates to ‘Fires’, plural, but as Denis Villeneuve drives his gripping narrative towards a moment of truth, each of these tiny mysteries coalesce into something far more singular than anyone might have predicted.

Though it is the children who peel back the layers of the past, it is their mother, Nawal, who we stick with for much of the film. Her character is based partially on real-life figure Souha Bechara, a Lebanese communist militant who attempted to assassinate Antoine Lahad, the prominent leader of the South Lebanese Amy. Parallels aren’t drawn too heavily given the creative licence present, and so the Middle Eastern nation in this story goes unnamed, with only the fictional Daresh being named as the city that Nawal must escape from after a civil war breaks out. Right from the start, we recognise her life as truly harrowing – her lover is murdered, she is exiled from her family, her baby is forcibly taken, and this isn’t to mention her fifteen years of imprisonment during which she was raped by a guard.

Villeneuve skilfully weaves in these flashbacks throughout Jeanne and Simon’s search for their missing relatives, tracing paths through old neighbours, nurses, caretakers, and warlords who all seem to hold some piece of the puzzle. Chapter titles also serve to introduce new characters and locations, cleverly interacting with our assumed perspective at one point when we believe we are following Nawal’s son, Nihad, scavenging for food through bombed streets. Suddenly, the boy is shot, and we discover that the real Nihad is perched up in a building with a sniper rifle, training to kill for the Christian nationalists.

All through these flashbacks, Incendies doesn’t let up in its brutality. It is evident that Nawal is only able to get by on her own wits, but even that isn’t enough to save those around her as well. Though she disguises herself as a Muslim to escape a city on a bus, she quickly reidentifies as Christian after the vehicle is stopped by nationalists, and upon being let go free, she pushes her luck by pretending to be the mother of another’s child. Sadly, the young girl doesn’t possess the same self-control under dire circumstances. As the bus burns in the background, Villeneuve captures an affecting shot of Nawal’s profile in the foreground, set against the orange flames and black smoke, and suffering through a tremendous grief.

Given the scope of a single life that Villeneuve covers in Incendies, it is also appropriate for him to blow it up in scale as well, and through the abundant helicopter shots capturing urban and rural landscapes, the widespread harshness of it all sets in. Tied to that harshness is a tragedy that is as equally extensive, and between the two there is a symbiotic relationship, allowing them to feed off each other across war zones and within individuals. As much as Jeanne and Simon would like to believe the conflict of their mother’s past was a case of inherently bad men and victims with pure souls, the lines are revealed to be blurrier and far more disturbing than they would like to believe. The characters of Incendies contain remarkable depths, hidden not just to others, but to themselves as well, and it is only when they are brought light that anyone can reckon with the true root of human suffering.

Incendies is currently streaming on SBS On Demand, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, Google Play, and Amazon Prime Video.

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