The wicked go astray from the womb;
they err from their birth, speaking lies.
They have venom like the venom of a serpent,
like the deaf adder that stops its ear,
so that it does not hear the voice of charmers
or of the cunning enchanter.
The righteous will rejoice when they see vengeance done;
they will bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked.
People will say, “Surely there is a reward for the righteous;
surely there is a God who judges on earth.”
Psalm 58:3-5, 10-11
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?
Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Wajdi Mouawad’s poetic play is a mesmerizing film of mystery, adventure, and unconditional love in the midst of factional hatred. It begins with the reading of a will in the Montreal office of a notary and then jumps to an unnamed Middle Eastern nation torn by religious and political strife, moving back and forth in time. The mystery surrounding the mother of a twin sister and brother is slowly peeled away, layer by layer, until at last we understand something of the unconditional love with which she had surrounded them, and which she apparently wishes to extend beyond her own lifetime.
Lebel (Rémy Girard), the notary who had been the long time employer and friend of the deceased, sits down with Jeanne and Simon Marwan (Mélissa Désormeaux Poulin and Maxim Gaudette) to read them their mother Nawal’s will (Lubna Azabal). Her bizarre requests begin with her wish to be buried “naked, no prayers, face down, away from the world.” Her son and daughter are then handed a pair of envelopes and instructed to deliver them personally—one to their father and one to their brother. But they had grown up believing that their father had died during the civil war in their mother’s country, nor had they known anything about a brother. Simon, thinking this a symptom of their mother’s craziness—she had been unusually silent and withdrawn during her last days—refuses to accept the mission.
Jeanne, however, feeling duty bound to fulfill their mother’s wishes, sets off for the unnamed country (which we presume must be Lebanon). During her interviews with various people numerous flashbacks reveal the secrets of their mother’s past. Nawal, growing up in a Christian family, had fallen in love with a Muslim and become pregnant, and so her vengeful brothers had killed him. They would have murdered her as well, but for their grandmother, who took care of her until the baby was born. As the son is taken from her, Nawal promises the infant that she will find him one day.
The child is put in an orphanage, and his mother is exiled to the care of relatives in a distant city. Jeanne visits her mother’s village, but the women know nothing of her father and their contempt for Nawal and the shame she had brought on the family and the village leads them to demand that she leave. Just as Nawal did not give up on her search for her lost son, so Jeanne keeps on following the small clues she finds, arriving at an orphanage. Crucial to her search is a small photograph of her mother against a background of a wall on which are written some words in Arabic. A man recognizes that the words point to a prison in the south, and so Jeanne sets out for it. We learn that Nawal was on a bus on the way to the orphanage where her son had been sent when a Christian militia stops the bus and begins firing into it. She calls out that she is a Christian and tries to take the little daughter of a doomed mother with her. However, when the terrified child breaks away and tries to run back to her mother, a militiaman shoots her, and then he and his men set fire to the bus, burning alive all of the Muslim passengers.
This act of hatred turns Nawal against her co-religionists so that she seeks vengeance on the leader. What she does and how this leads to the prison I will leave to you to discover. Back in the present Lebel and Simon join Jean, and from a former Muslim militiaman and a prison midwife the trio learns of Nawal’s years of torture and rape in the prison and her being called “The Woman Who Sings.” Apparently singing was her lifeline for surviving the horrors inflicted on her. Certainly it is an appropriate name when, at the film’s climax, we learn of her incredible unconditional love. How this will impact the twins and the father and brother for whom they are searching, the filmmaker leaves to the viewer to decide.
Whatever conclusion viewers come to, the film will resonate in their minds long after the screen credits fade away. The love depicted is incredible, rare, and to be cherished and celebrated because it reflects the love Christians attribute to God. Two other films about a mother’s legacy that came to mind after I saw this film are Eleni and The Great Santini. The first is based on the true story of a New York Times reporter searching in Greece for the former guerilla who executed his mother years earlier when Communist forces took over his village. When he catches up with the killer, he is torn between his lust for vengeance and his mother’s legacy of sacrificial love. The second is the semi-autobiography of Pat Conroy’s teenage years of growing up under the domination of a harsh military father and a gentle mother who helped free him from his father’s harsh view of life. Oh yes, there is a third, God Bless the Child in which a homeless mother decides that she must give up her little daughter so that she can grow up in a healthy and secure environment. Any or all of these would be a fitting follow up to Incendies.
The film’s title refers to a fire that totally destroys, and so we see this in the hatred between the warring Christians and Muslims. In this respect Denis Villeneuve and Wajdi Mouawad’s work is akin to Stephen Spielberg’s Munich, based on the spiral of violence between Arab terrorists and Jewish intelligence agents stemming from the brutal massacre of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics. Both films depict the dehumanization and destruction of innocent lives when people seek vengeance. With the writer of the old peace song “Where have All the Flowers Gone?” they ask, “When will we ever learn, when will we ever learn?” The miracle in Incendies is that love can survive such devastation.
1. What do you think of Naval when you first hear about her strange burial request? How does your understanding of her grow as the movie unfolds?
2. Which of the two children seems the most like her? How do we see also that both share a large measure of her persistence (especially Jeanne)?
3. How does the filmmaker make us work in order to figure out what we are seeing? (Do you think his withholding of explanations for various scenes—such as the killing of Naval’s lover, or the identity of the boys in the head-shaving scene—forces viewers to become more involved in the film?
4. In the scene in which we see the shaving of boys’ heads, who do you think is among them (
the one who stares into the camera)? What do you think the use on the soundtrack of Radiohead’s “You and Whose Army?” adds to the scene?
5. How are the “Christians” depicted more Arab than Christian, especially in the sequence of the killing of the lover and the birth of Naval’s child and her subsequent exile? And, of course, in the scene of the brutal slaughter of the Muslim passengers on the bus?
6. What moments of grace do you recall seeing in the film? How is the Notary Lebel an agent of grace? What does his remark “To a notary, Mr. Marwan, a promise is a sacred thing” reveal about him?
7. What do you think of Naval’s prison title “The Woman Who Sings” ? How might the filmmaker have played this up more? For another film in which music becomes a survival tactic see the lyrical Bruce Beresford film Paradise Road, based on the true story of a group of women prisoners in a Japanese P.O.W. camp who form a voice orchestra.
8. Were you prepared for the film’s final revelation? What do you think of Naval’s letters? What effects do you think they will have? How do you see God revealed in her statements? Contrast the attitude of the two Scriptures quoted above. You might also check out Romans 12:19-21.