Program Notes: Incendies (2010)

Denis Villeneuve’s Oscar-nominated (for foreign language film) Incendies (French for “fires”) is about war and peace, about family and forgiveness.

It overflows with horror and emotional beauty, yet it delivers its potent payload with a minimum of sentimentality and filmic melodrama.

It’s the story of one life, but also about how the ripples from that life have spread to engulf many other lives.

Writer/director Villeneuve (whose first American film, Prisoners, with Jake Gyllenhaal and Hugh Jackman, opened a few weeks back) has given us an intimate epic.

In modern-day Quebec twins Jeanne and Simon Marwan (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin, Maxim Gaudette) learn that their late mother, Nawal, a native of Lebanon who lived in Canada for more than two decades, has left behind a will packed with bombshells.

Film Screening:
Incendies (2010)
Saturday, Nov. 9 at 1:30 p.m.
Central Library

Through a notary (Rémy Girard) the dead woman instructs Jeanne to find the twins’ father and deliver a letter to him. Simon is told to locate their older brother and hand over a similar epistle.

They are stunned. They were told their father was dead. And Nawal never mentioned having another child.

These revelations send the twins on a journey through time and geography.

Jeanne is the first to set out, retracing her mother’s early life in a poor Lebanese village. Villeneuve deftly juxtaposes Jeanne’s search with episodes from the life of Nawal (Lubna Azabal). The two actresses look so much alike that there are times when we’re not sure which decade we’re in.

Nawal’s story begins in 1970 with her affair with an Arab from a nearby refugee camp. She’s Christian, he’s Muslim, and her family reacts violently. Nawal gives birth to a baby boy who is placed in an orphanage.

Leaving the village where she is considered an outcast, Nawal wanders through her country’s long civil war. She barely escapes being slaughtered along with the Muslim riders on a bus stopped by right-wing Christian militiamen. Her attempts to find her son are stymied – the orphanage has been destroyed in the fighting and the children have vanished.

Her increasing radicalization leads her to side with the Arab resistance. Her journey encompasses assassination, torture, and nearly 20 years of imprisonment. Her Christian jailers are determined to break the will of this turncoat; Nawal’s ability to endure every torment thrown at her makes her something of a legend – the “woman who sings.”

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The tale then turns to Simon’s efforts to discover the whereabouts of his older brother, whom he learns was taken in as a child by the Arabs and emerged as a ruthless killer. By talking to now-graying revolutionaries who still live in hiding, Simon slowly unravels the secrets of his mysterious sibling.

In his adaptation of Wajdi Mouawad’s stage play Villeneuve parcels out a series of stunning revelations, each one carefully timed for maximum impact. Too many films give away their secrets too easily...this one teases us until we’re left in open-mouthed astonishment by its final, heartbreaking development.

The cast members deliver indelible characters without a hint of artifice. These performances are so unforced, natural and histrionic free that we’re never aware that it’s acting.

Great movies satisfy not only in the watching but in the remembering. Once seen, you can’t help but recall the complex emotions evoked by Incendies. They keep coming back, like a myth that resonates with deeper and richer meanings every time we contemplate it.

Other films in the series “Middle Eastern Voices”

This film series complements the exhibit Echoes: Islamic Art & Contemporary Artists on display through April 27, 2014, at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:

Admission to these films is free.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.

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