The discovery of a family’s hidden history sparks an explosive journey in Denis Villeneuve's Oscar nominee. It's free to watch at SBS On Demand.
12 Nov 2014 - 1:17 PM  UPDATED 4 Dec 2020 - 1:09 PM

The opening scene

The mood and meaning of few feature films have been established as ominously as Denis Villeneuve manages at the beginning of his coruscating drama: the camera calmly tracks towards a group of young boys in an empty room, who are methodically having their heads shaved. Their gazes are fixed and stoic – there’s not a speck of youthful pleasure in their young faces, which makes you fearful of where they are and what might come next. The soundtrack is Radiohead’s ‘You and Whose Army’, a song heavy on the nightmarish realm the everyday can slip into. “We ride tonight, we ride tonight,” intones Thom Yorke, and everything suggests that it’s a one-way journey.

The story’s sad timeliness

Adapted from Wajdi Mouawad’s play Scorched, Incendies is partially set in an unnamed Middle East country – plainly it’s Lebanon – where the cycle of division and violence becomes so powerful that it seemingly cannot be broken by those who remain alive. When Jeanne (Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin) and Simon (Maxim Gaudette), the grown children raised in Canada by their immigrant mother, the late Narwal (Lubna Azabal), receive her will, it requests that she be buried facedown without a tombstone, and that they deliver letters to the father and older brother in the Middle East they know nothing of. As they begin the task, her painful life story is revealed in flashbacks.

The compelling direction

If you’d wondered why so many Hollywood actors – including Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal – worked with the comparatively unknown Villeneuve on 2013’s Prisoners, Incendies is the reason why. The French-Canadian filmmaker directs taut, impeccably staged scenes, always staying with his characters even as the horror of what is happening around them grows. At one point in the story, as civil war breaks out, a young Narwal, who is Christian, is on a bus with Muslim compatriots that is stopped by Christian militiamen. She escapes the massacre that follows by revealing her faith, but her efforts to save a Muslim child are dashed. The atrocity that ensures is imprinted on the young woman, who makes amends with tragically violent precision.

It’s Remy Girard

The fine Canadian actor Remy Girard (see The Barbarian Invasions) has a small role here, playing the notary who employed Narwal and subsequently delivers her will to her children, but he provides such moral diligence and compassion that you’re heartened when his character, Jean, arrives to assist the siblings in their enquiries.

It turns a mystery into something more

On one level this is a puzzle film, complete with cryptic posthumous requests and revelations of unknown relatives, but despite ranging across more than 30 years – and some coincidences that stretch the plot – the story always reflects on the idea of what one generation of a family passes down to the next, and how easy it is for us to hide a painful past from those we love even if it distances us from them. Family often fails in Incendies, beginning with Narwal’s brothers murdering her first love as a matter of honour, but the more Jeanne learns the more she comes to understand a mother who often left her feeling flummoxed.


Watch 'Incendies'

Sunday 13 December, 8:30pm on SBS World Movies
Tuesday 15 December, 1:25am on SBS World Movies

Canada, 2010
Genre: Drama
Language: French
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Lubna Azabal, Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin, Maxim Gaudette, Remy Girard

Streaming after broadcast at SBS On Demand:
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