Combustible Celluloid
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With: Lubna Azabal, Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin, Maxim Gaudette, Rémy Girard, Abdelghafour Elaaziz, Allen Altman, Mohamed Majd, Nabil Sawalha, Baya Belal, Bader Alami, Karim Babin, Anthony Ecclissi, Yousef Shweihat
Written by: Denis Villeneuve, based on a play by Wajdi Mouawad
Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
MPAA Rating: R for some strong violence and language
Language: French, Arabic, English, with English subtitles
Running Time: 130
Date: 09/04/2010

Incendies (2010)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Building a Mystery

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I have already ranted about the problems with the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Up to now I have seen three of the five nominees for 2010, and none of them were much good, including the actual winner, In a Better World. But the fourth nominee, Denis Villeneuve's Incendies, proves that there's at least a minor exception to every rule. It's a bit long, and one side of its two-part narrative doesn't work quite as well as the other, but it's a strong and surprising piece of work.

I'll start with the bit that doesn't work so well. It's a flashback, telling the story of Nawal Marwan (Lubna Azabal). Living in the Middle East during some of its most turbulent times, she falls in love with a local man and becomes pregnant. She falls in with a militant group, performs an assassination and goes to jail. This stuff by itself is very soapy and handled with the utmost grim countenance; if it were the entire movie, this review would be a pan.

But then there's the good part of the movie. It begins in the present day, where Nawal's grown children, French-Canadian twins Jeanne (the lovely Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) and Simon (Maxim Gaudette) attend a reading of their mother's will. They are presented with some shocking news and a strange request. Jeanne is to locate and deliver an envelope to the brother she never knew she had, and Simon is to locate and deliver an envelope to the father he never knew he had. And so the more powerful of the movie's engines is a terrific mystery, sending our heroes through the history of their family and through different countries and cultures.

In some scenes, they learn bits and pieces about their mother, and seeing their faces react to the news is far more powerful than the actual flashbacks. This seems to be against the rules of the cinema -- which ordinarily dictates showing rather than telling -- but in this case, the reactions of the children are far more personal than the reactions we in the audience are supposed to have.

Moreover, Villeneuve's camera seems to be in touch with the curiosity and wonder that the children face, whereas the horrors of the flashback sequences seem more routine and obligatory; and in fact, I suspect that the dull flashback sequences, with their images of war and social unrest, are the very reason Incendies received its Oscar nomination. But the emotional strength and narrative genius of the modern-day sequences make it a very good movie.

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