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Family secrets are unearthed in this Oscar-nominated film

By Samantha Rideout

Directed by Denis Villeneuve

Based on the acclaimed play Scorched by Canadian writer Wajdi Mouawad, Incendies opens with a pair of adult twins, Jeanne and Simon, reading the will of their deceased mother, Nawal. The will reveals that the twins have a lost brother and father, so Jeanne sets off to search for them in an unnamed country that resembles Lebanon. Bit by bit, she discovers that Nawal led a gruelling life marked by war, honour killings, rape, imprisonment and religious intolerance.

This sounds awfully heavy on paper, but the film alleviates the impact of these subjects with suspense, humour and a sense of the beauty of human endurance in the face of suffering, qualities that earned it an Oscar nod for best foreign-language film.  

Because of the way the plot unfolds, director Denis Villeneuve has compared Incendies to ancient Greek tragedy. The film alternates between the twins’ present and the mother’s past, slowly revealing family secrets as the twins unearth them. Like all tragic heroes, Nawal has a fatal flaw: her passion for her eldest son, the child of an illicit relationship. When she hears that a Christian militia has killed the boy, she plummets into a deep hatred, leading to further misfortune.

Through the lens of religiously motivated conflict, Incendies explores the tension between love and hate. It doesn’t moralize, nor does it judge the characters for falling prey to each of these two forces. A scene near the beginning in which Jeanne attends an advanced math class sets the film’s ambiguous tone. “You are used to solvable problems,” says the professor. “But in this class, you will be faced with problems that don’t necessarily have solutions.”

Incendies suggests that separating love from hate is one such problem. Yet while both of these forces may be hopelessly intertwined in the human spirit, the film’s surprising conclusion hints that love is the greater of the two.

Samantha Rideout is a freelance journalist in Montreal.

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