To speak with a voice mutilated by silent pain, to love when all that surrounds you is hatred, when everything around you whispers and yells some justification of torture and murder, to choose to persevere as a mother when motherhood threatens your sanity – such choices are no small feat.
Incendies tells the story of a quest, an attempt to understand a chaos that the characters inherited. After the death of their mother Nawal (Lubna Azabal), two twins, Jeanne (Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin), a mathematician, and her brother Simon (Maxime Gaudette), are given two letters to deliver to a father they never met and a brother they never knew existed. Hesitant at first and then determined to find peace -Jeanne more so than Simon-, they both accept to go on the search for their lost family members.
The movie has no place, or rather mentions no real one. We know for obvious reasons that the story takes place in the Arab world, more specifically somewhere not unlike Lebanon. The Arabic accents are mixed; we hear Jordanian, Syrian, Lebanese, Palestinian and Moroccan accents throughout the movie. Such a choice reveals one of Incendies‘s most powerful quality: its universality. It doesn’t matter the country, religion, or period of history you happen to be involved in with or without your approval. It makes no difference whether you’re an Irish Catholic or Protestant, a Rwandan Tutsi or Hutu, a Native or non-Native American, an Israeli or Palestinian. What matters is the inherent cruel foolishness that lies within arbitrary hatred.
The whole world of Incendies is obviously about Lebanon and about the Lebanese Civil War in particular. Through violent images, we get a sense of how absurd the whole situation was. No direct accusations are made by the movie’s characters – and here lies another unexpected strength of this movie: it’s indirectness. Instead, massacres of innocent civilians – elders, women and children included – shocks the viewer into immediately condemning such madness. It doesn’t need to say that this is madness and it avoids pointing fingers at anyone. All it needs to do, and all it does, is show the madness.
Indeed, most people do not choose their religion or nationality. And yet religion and nationality are exactly what a good number of the world’s population rely on to define themselves. Needless to say, such a reality is a hotbed of hatred and violence. That’s the conclusion reached by Nawal, and that’s the conclusion she wants her children to reach.
Such a conclusion might not be as obvious to all viewers of different cultural backgrounds. Lebanese citizens with only a basic knowledge of their country’s history would recognize the references to real-life events such as the bus massacre and the horrors of Khiam prison. Arabs would notice the weird mixture of accents from the very beginning which would immediately make them wonder the reason behind such a choice. Non-Arabic speakers might miss, despite their most honest intentions, crucial details.
This would have been a major weakness of Incendies were it not compensated by its message of universality. It just so happens that Arabic is spoken here. It could have just easily been done in a Serbian or Rwandan or Irish context. So even if non-Arabic speakers miss some details, they would still be mesmerized by the visuals, saddened by the suffering and forced to pause and reflect.
When Jeanne heads off to the country of her origins, we are already in the midst of a movie with two stories. We are shown, through Jeanne’s own visits, glimpses into Nawal’s past. Nawal was beaten, tortured and raped for being involved in a conflict she did not choose. All she did was love a man she wasn’t supposed to and try to find the son they took away from her. The rest was hatred and chaos.
And what else can be said? it’s truly important to note the essential importance of silences throughout the movie. Besides two Radiohead songs that are heard during extremely dramatic scenes, the whole movie is plagued by chilling silences connected only by conversations and sound bites. Manipulation of sounds and pauses adds, of course, to the themes of hopelessness and disillusionment. Nawal joins a radical group that is obviously against her own educated and open-minded political beliefs after witnessing, and almost being a part of, the massacre of Muslim civilians in a bus by Christian militias.
All in all, Incendies works as a story of the unthinkable. It portrays a world where 1+1 can actually result in 1, where a mother’s love can fight her rapist’s hatred and where the slow decay of life knows no other relief but acceptance.