“Incendies”, a French-Canadian film that has received many awards and accolades, has plenty of heart, comments Shajahan Madampat.

“Incendies”, a French Canadian film made by Denis Villeneuve and screened to spell-bound adulation at Abu Dhabi International Film Festival, is a mirror held against ‘the age of fear'. Adapted from a play by Wajdi Mouawad, this poignant poetry on screen combines refined pathos, stunning aesthetics, solemn visual reticence and bewildering unpredictability.

Presumably set against the backdrop of the Lebanese Civil War, this heart-wrenching saga about human condition in war-torn societies and the unspeakable vicissitudes of fortune that await both the victim and the tormentor could well be about any other strife-ridden country.

The message one takes home from the film is that the cruellest of fates is humanly engineered rather than divinely ordained. Decades after the victim and the tormentor have fled the geography of their dehumanisation, the after-effects of their past haunt them across continents and beyond death, enveloping in myriad and often devastating ways even the lives of future generations.

The story has all the hallmarks of a Greek tragedy, except that the viewer will find its vivid resonances in and around himself in stark contemporaneity. The tragic and oedipal tale of Nawal Marwan that unfolds after her death through the anguished investigations of her twin children with the help of a loyal notary is marked by a sense of universality that goes far beyond the specificity of the plot. As such, it communicates to the viewer viscerally, intellectually and politically; leaving him speechless for a moment and internally purified thereafter. It is catharsis of a rare kind that happens only when art, craft and humanity converge to an indivisible degree.

Narrative structure

Nawal leaves two letters with her notary before death, asking him to hand them over to her twin children, daughter Jeanne and son Simon. The letters contain two envelopes and ask Jeanne and Simon to deliver them to their father and brother. Till that moment, the sister and brother thought their father had been long dead and had no inkling of having a brother.

The subsequent search for the elusive father and brother — which Jeanne undertakes in right earnest and Simon reluctantly joins in later along with and under the pressure of Jean Lebel, the notary — leads them to the murky world of the violent civil war between the Christians and the Muslims in the unnamed country. What follows is a visually baffling and emotionally unsettling juxtaposition of events from Nawal's tumultuous life and the twin's determined efforts to unravel their mother's past.

Nawal, who hails from a Christian family, has a borderless mind and is fiercely opposed to the destructive sectarian logic that drives the civil strife. She left her village years ago after the murder of her Muslim lover at the hands of her own family and after giving birth to his child a few months later. The child was, however, abandoned, but not before her grandmother put a tattoo on his ankle. Years later, Nawal sets out in search of her lost child, exposing herself to the mindless violence and barbarity that engulfed the country by then.

Alternating between hope and utter despair for a long time and having exhausted all the possibilities, Nawal kills the leader of the Christian militia in a moment of desperation. Thirteen long years of unspeakable persecution in prison and two children born of rape later, she leaves for the relative safety and anonymity of Canada. But, with a hoary past casting a shadow of gloom and terror on her, Nawal could never restore her life to any semblance of normality, leaving Simon in a permanent state of rage and Jeanne in anguish. In a way, the whole film is a negotiation between and journey across anguish, anxiety and unmitigated fear.

Intimate enemy

The dénouement that Simon and Jeanne encounter prove too devastating for the young man and woman to stomach for what their search unearths finally is an enemy too intimate to either love or hate. They do find their father and brother at the very end, but in a way that could never end on a happy note.

When you step out of the theatre, you experience the same dilemma that confronted Nawal and it haunts you for a long time. “Incendies” is a film that convinces you that anguish is not an altogether banished emotion in our times, in spite of concerted attempts by manufacturers of massacres and genocidal hates to replace our anguish with naked fear. Though not stated in so many words, it comes out clearly in the film that sectarian conflicts are never spontaneous eruptions of collective furies of people; they are always engineered for achieving sinister and callous political ends.

Denis Villeneuve deserves rich praise for making his viewers a little more humane in their hearts. That he did so without either obfuscating political truths or jettisoning aesthetics is a strong counter to the professional relativism underpinning most post-modern narratives in both cinema and literature.

All the actors in the film make you feel they could not have been replaced. Lubna Azabal (Nawal)), Remy Girard (Jean Lebel), Jeanne Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin (Jeanne) and Maxim Gaudette (Simon) — they all do immense justice to their roles.

Shajahan Madampat is a cultural critic and commentator based in Abu Dhabi.