I provided the above definition because I wanted some verification of a word most often used to classify the medium of film, a definition which thereby also simultaneously implies their purpose. Though the word "art" is often correctly ascribed as well, this art is usually delivered in an entertaining manner. All this word-play is because frankly, I initially had no idea how the hell to discuss the movie Incendies, a sentiment I uttered to my equally shell-shocked husband as we left the theater Saturday night... "How am I going to write about this film?" And after a few moments, my husband replied: "Would you even call that entertainment?"
Which got me to thinking... would I?
We all tend to think of entertainment in the positive. But in order for me to categorize this film, based on the award-winning play by Wajdi Mouawad and directed with rage, compassion and vision by Denis Villeneuve as entertainment, I stretch the definition (my blog, my prerogative) to include that which engages the mind, that which compels one to watch. Which also brings to mind the cliche about a trainwreck.
You simply cannot turn away.
Nor, I'm proposing, should you.
Why? (Again with the questions, I know. But hang with me... I'm getting somewhere)
1 - Because some stories need to be told. And as any author (of written, visual or oral material) knows, and feels deeply, a story can't fully exist without a reader or a viewer or a listener. The telling is only one part of the process. The receiving and perceiving of it completes the cycle, completes the transformation into a "story." (A tree may fall in the forest, and despite no one being present, it might very well make some noise. But trust me -- for an author, telling their tale to an empty forest might work as a great scene in a film, but in reality -- it would suck, and it wouldn't feel like they'd told their tale at all. Just ask any blogger who gets, like, zero page views. Or any unpublished author. To say the experience is unsatisfying is beyond understated.)
2 - Because in some cases, it is our obligation as human beings. To bear witness. To see that which many of us thankfully escape, those conditions under which many of us never have to live, which many of us choose never to even think about.
Because WE NEED TO KNOW WHAT GOES ON IN OTHER PARTS OF THE WORLD. And those other parts are often dark, sad, mad and maddening. How can we understand our fellow human beings if don't understand what they must endure? How they live? Perhaps if there were more understanding, there would be more peace. And if not understanding (for how can one truly understand that which is so utterly foreign to one's own experiences), at least acknowledgment.
This is the case with Incendies. I am urging you to see it, though I am quite certain you will not enjoy it. Though I am equally certain -- you will not regret seeing it.
I went into this film not knowing much of anything about it, which I like to do from time to time. It is rare you get to be completely surprised by something (especially in a film, these days, and with American films in particular). To go in with no expectations. I hadn't read a single review. But the fact that it had been nominated for the best foreign film Oscar assured me of a certain level of quality, and that was all I needed. I've done this for years -- seeing these foreign Oscar nominees and winners without a single preconception -- and have never been disappointed.
Since nearly all reviews include a plot summary (otherwise, how can you say you are actually "reviewing" it, I guess, though I like to call what I do here in this space more of a "discussion"), I resign myself to perpetuating this tradition, because most of you won't just take my word for it and seek out this film in whatever tiny theater is showing it in some small corner of your nearest city. For some of you, this film may not play in a feasible location at all, and you'll have to wait for the DVD.
So here are some basics that will help you feel less blind: We begin in Canada. A mother dies (This mother, Nawal Marwan, is played by Lubna Azabal, and let me tell you -- she is one mother of an actress. Called upon to play a daughter, heart-broken young woman, mother, warrior... she inhabits this amazing role with a fierce and intelligent strength and grace. It is something to behold). It is quickly apparent that Nawal's relationship with her twins -- now a young man and woman -- was rocky, that both children felt their mother wasn't exactly "normal," that she was difficult. As Nawal's will is read aloud, some unusual requests are made. The will's executor is insistent that the twins accept their assignment in the exact terms -- namely that the twins find their father, whose identity they were never told and whom they believed long deceased. And further -- that they find their brother. A brother they never knew they had. This sends the twins begrudgingly to the middle east, to their mother's roots, on a journey whose destination is both what they were lead to believe, and simultaneously nothing like what they expected. In seeking out the rest of their family, they uncover truths about their mother and themselves that change their entire perspective on the woman who raised them, and about their own place in the world. More than that - it changes the way they see all of the world.
It is a harrowing journey. For the daughter, Jeanne, a restrained and seemingly repressed mathematician (played with a painful and sorrow-filled quiet intensity by Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) this is also a journey inward, one that forces her to leave the safety of her intellect for the unknown, unknowable and chaotic territory of her heart. For her "other half," Simon (Maxim Gaudette, whose body almost visibly vibrates with the rage of a child who's never known happiness, who seems to have given up on a life that has perpetually disappointed him) an angry, volatile man who works with his hands, he finds himself on a path where losing one's temper can get one killed; where he is forced to both use his mind and open it in ways he's never allowed himself before. In many ways, both these adults seem only half-formed. As though they are stuck in an unhappy childhood, unable or afraid to fully mature for fear that the life that awaits them will be as disappointing as the years they've already passed.
There is much sadness, more tragedy, and little joy. But there is courage. And bravery. The kind of heroism and human spirit that you will instantly recognize as possible and true and that exists in the real places that these fictional characters visit. For those of us fortunate enough to live comfortably far from the locations in which much of the action happens, we will immediately comprehend that these are places not always of living, but of SURVIVING. Places that show the worst -- but also the best -- of humanity. The strength of our species to endure through unimaginable horrors, and sometimes to move past those horrors and begin anew.
Only if there is one lesson to be learned from this film, it's that there never really is "anew." The past remains. It is something we contain within ourselves and our memories and the very fiber of who we become as a result of those pasts... But as this film shows, it is metaphorically and literally in our DNA... and we pass it on to our children in ways obvious and hidden.
This is a small film -- because it is foreign, and it isn't flashy. It isn't filled with physical nudity, but with the nakedness that results when people are mentally and emotionally stripped bare. It is filled with physical and psychological violence, and its unflinching gaze at this world and its inhabitants will make you want to look away. But don't. Please.
It will take effort to find it if you don't live in NY, LA, and a few other major cities. Yet I'm asking you to make the effort.
But trust me -- and if you're here at this blog, you already have some level of confidence in my judgment (which I thank you for, mainly on behalf of the films which I try to champion at this blog) -- the lengths to which you'll go to see this are probably as simple as putting it in your Netflix queue. And it is nothing compared to the challenges and obstacles that this story's characters must confront, which are merely representative of the very real challenges and obstacles faced by millions of people on the other side of the world whose lives are constant struggles. For whom just getting through the day is a triumph. For whom finding joy is less likely than uncovering that needle in a haystack.
But this film is that needle. It is small, and sharp, and worth digging for. It can hurt you, but sometimes the sensation of pain is the surest confirmation that we are alive. View the trailer below... then go find this film. (And if the video doesn't work, please use the link above. Sorry...)