Thursday, July 21, 2011


One shudders to think what was going through the mind of those judges who had to decide which was the best film for the foreign Oscar this year.

Would it be that piece of paternalistic claptrap in which a Danish doctor helps the starving black masses, or would it be a masterpiece like Biutiful or the apparently brilliant Dogtooth from Greece -or Incendies, a Canadian film which stays with you like a dream that is so disturbing and important that it doesn’t have to be written down.

The judges obviously settled for In a Better World with its comfortable, anti-Muslim view of Africa just dying to be helped by a good bwana. But there is nothing comfortable about Incendies, which roughly means scorched, having just finished at the New Zealand International Film Festival and coming to cinemas next month.

It's a devastating metaphor for the Middle East, but the judges probably didn't like the fact that it's finger isn't pointed at Muslims this time, but Christians. As if it matters, for God's sake. Fanaticism is fanaticism.

What starts off as a slightly strange reading of a will in a Canadian notary’s office leads us slowly and surely  into a maze of horror in the Lebanese south that, as one character later on says, it would be better not to know about. But by then we are so far into this journey, so mesmerized, that we can’t let go.

To say what exactly the film is “about” would be doing it a great disservice, not because it would be spoiling the plot but because the subject matter is so delicate and can so easily sound trite – or sensational - that it would cheapen it.

Director Denis Villeneuve steers his actors through this emotional labyrinth with a sober, steady hand, using no fancy lighting, and gets performances that are breathtaking. It would be almost unfair to single anyone out, but Lubna Azabal’s performance as the central character is so good that her haunted look, like that dream, will not go away.

If at the beginning we might think she’s having a slightly over-dramatic moment at a public swimming pool, when we finally know why it seems like an act of superhuman restraint. How can she not burst, let alone live, having been through so much?

One of the great ironies of the film is that “civilized” Canada is shown as dark, cold, rainy and sterile, whereas rural Lebanon is depicted as sunny and passionate – but rotten with religious and moral depravity. As for those who think film cannot convey depth,complexity and catharsis, here's proof to the contrary.

See this film if you want to know what’s happening in the Middle East, from whatever point of view. It’s all the same. But its greatest accomplishment is that if the audience was making audible sounds of disbelief and horror, not one of us left. We couldn’t. It’s too vital, like a Greek tragedy, to walk away from or to avoid.

Incendies has to be seen. Period.

Neil Sonnekus

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