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Incendies, 2010

Twins Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) and Simon (Maxim Gaudette) are reeling from the recent death of their mother, Nawal (Lubna Azabal) when their mother's will throws another shock in their direction. The will directs the children to track down a father they believed to have been dead and a brother they never knew existed and deliver a letter to each of them. The film cuts between the present and the past as the siblings uncover details about their mother's past in the heat of serious civil unrest in a Middle Eastern country.

This film is like an emotional gauntlet, beginning and ending with unsettling, distressing imagery and never letting up in between. Based on a play, there are some coincidences and chance encounters that at time strain credulity, but the film is so well crafted and its themes so well explored that I would have granted it far more suspension of disbelief than what it asked for.

Azabal gives an absolutely searing lead performance as Nawal, a woman who suffers at the hands of the unrest around her whether she's peripherally or directly involved in it. Nawal has her own sense of honor, and Azabal balances the character's determination with a vulnerability that allows you to extrapolate just how much trauma and pain this woman has grown used to covering up. Gaudette is also very good as Nawal's daughter, who through the exploration of her mother's past finally comes to understand why at times their relationship may have been strained. I think that part of the grief that we see in Jeanne isn't just learning about how her mother suffered, but knowing that she will never be able to process those injuries and injustices with her mother.

This is a story that in large part centers on the needless cruelties of war. I did end up reading a bit about the film, because I thought I'd missed some important context. I was relieved to learn that the film kept the country deliberately vague and that many of the town names were fictional. This approach pairs with the way that the film repeatedly, intentionally muddies the waters between the two warring sides: the Christian nationalists and the Muslim groups. We see both sides commit terrible atrocities against the other, and the victims are almost always people simply trapped in the middle, such as a harrowing sequence involving a busload of Muslim refugees who are caught by a group of Christian nationalist militants.

Thematically, the film constantly raises the question of dual identities, beginning with Nawal's children being twins and carrying on from there. Identities are alternately hidden or claimed in order to survive. Jeanne and Simon must unravel their own mother's identity and story, learning about things she did and things that were done to her that constantly force them to reframe what they think they know about her.

The film itself is also structured so that we as viewers must constantly reevaluate what we've seen. A sequence that we see in the first act might be given a very different context as we head into the last act. There are even little details that take on deeper meaning, such as the fact that (BIG SPOILERS)
WARNING: spoilers below
the twins are seen swimming so often when we learn that they were meant to have been thrown in the river at birth. That revelation cutting to them leaping into the pool seriously made me gasp.

It's amazing writing about this film, because I keep thinking of things I liked about it. I also love that it makes space to show how the non-militant characters can dramatically change the fate of someone else. A family deciding to relocate a child for the sake of family honor. A nurse deciding she must act in a way that is merciful. It's all incredibly complex, and small moments of cruelty or kindness add up in surprising ways. Wisely, the film doesn't try to do too much to unpack (MAJOR SPOILERS)
WARNING: spoilers below
the character of the son/rapist. I think that what we see and know of him goes way beyond "what someone does in war". He's a sadist who took pleasure in torturing/raping helpless people and specifically vulnerable women. But we're also painfully aware that he may not have developed this personality without the trauma and circumstances of his childhood. I think that leaving us to ponder what he must be thinking, especially at the end, is a strong decision.

I'm very intrigued by the idea that this film was based on a play, given some of the very visceral moments it contains. As I mentioned before, there are some moments of coincidence in the film that seem very unlikely. At the same time, events such as the ones shown have happened, so it's not a major criticism.

This is definitely a must-see.