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Canadian epic INCENDIES is Copernicus' favorite flick from TIFF!

The write-up of INCENDIES in the TIFF festival guide did not grab me, probably because they could only describe the first few minutes of the film so as not to give away the major twists. But after hearing some good buzz, including the rumor that it will probably be Canada’s selection for Best Foreign Film, and seeing it on some “movies to watch at TIFF” lists, I decided to give it a shot. Boy, I’m glad I did. Adapted from an acclaimed play by Wajdi Mouawad and directed by Denis Villeneuve, INCENDIES is epic, spanning two generations, a war, and several cities and villages scattered across two continents. It is a deeply personal story involving a series of mysteries, a journey of discovery, shocking revelations, and life-and-death drama. It is by far my favorite film of the festival, and probably the best film I’ve seen all year (with the possible exception of SCOTT PILGRIM, which is so different that it is just impossible to compare the two). From the opening scene of INCENDIES, you know you are in for something special. It is a slow zoom in at what looks to be an extreme Madrassa, or possibly a war camp, of boys getting their heads shaved set to a Radiohead’s “You and Whose Army.” The focus is on one boy in particular, and his stare, directly into the camera, is haunting. The meaning of this scene won’t become clear until much later in the film. Immediately after, we cut to a notary telling a twin brother and sister that their mother, Nawal, who has just passed away, has left them two letters. In one, she tells them that their father, who they both thought was dead, is actually alive. The girl, Jeanne, must find him and deliver a letter to him. In the other letter the mother reveals that the twins have a brother they didn’t know about, and the boy, Simon, must deliver a letter to him. She gives no clues as to how to go about this – they only have a single picture of their mother when she was young to go on. The twins think their mother is basically crazy, and the son refuses to participate. But the daughter feels duty-bound to take this opportunity to learn more about her heritage. So she begins her quest, and starts to uncover the secret life her mother had before she moved to Canada. Meanwhile, we cut to the mother when she was young, and her story is shown intercut with the modern story of the twins. I won’t give anything away, but it is safe to say that the mother was a participant in, and survivor of, gruesome events and a savage Christian-Muslim war. One reason INCENDIES is so compelling is that it is told as a mystery and a series of jaw-dropping revelations about the epic struggle of one woman to survive under horrible circumstances. In the process, the film comments on the treatment of women in Muslim society, “honor” killings, religious warfare, the construction of identity, and dark secrets. It would be easy for the film to fall into the trap of being didactic and preachy under these circumstances, but it never does, mainly because these things are just part of the landscape – obstacles that operate on the characters that seem absolutely genuine. Nor does the film take sides in the war – this is a human-scale drama, where the horrors unfolding around the characters can take many forms. An epic film like this, spanning decades, and requiring gut-wrenching emotion, can only be pulled off if the performances are outstanding. They are. Lubna Azabal takes center stage as the young mother, who starts off innocent and in love, but is utterly transformed by series of personal unholy devastations. She delivers one of the best performances in recent memory. Meanwhile, Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin and Maxim Gaudette are magnificent as the twins whose world is upended. The supporting cast is equally great – some of the performances are in French, some in English, and some in the local dialect of several villages in the Middle East. The director makes some bold choices that set this film apart. The structure of the film is unconventional – it is divided into chapters, announced with bold red letters filling the screen, each with a different character at the center. Several scenes are set to Radiohead songs, which perfectly evoke a dystopian, meditative atmosphere. Thom Yorke’s wailing voice – simultaneously mournful and revelatory, could almost stand in for the Muslim call to prayer. But here it’s the diametric opposite, heralding personal discovery rather than dangerous conformist groupthink. With a tightly woven, driving plot, captivating characters, superb acting, and bold direction, INCENDIES will surely make best-of lists in 2010. It is a rare gem that is as entertaining as it is important. I can’t wait to see it again. Fortunately, I’ll get a chance to -- in Toronto, Sony Pictures Classics picked up the film for US distribution. And I can’t wait for the next film from Denis Villeneuve. He’s a director to watch.

Readers Talkback
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  • Sept. 17, 2010, 3:05 p.m. CST

    Will there be a fatwah issued 'cause of this?

    by schadenfreudian

    Just asking...

  • Sept. 17, 2010, 3:09 p.m. CST

    Great Canadian cinema

    by lochkray

    Certainly a commodity in short supply. Never understood why. Lotsa talent.

  • Sept. 17, 2010, 3:16 p.m. CST


    by NADO

    This is a Canadian film actually from a French Canadian (Quebecois) director. It doesn't portrait Muslim in the usual stereotypical way American movies does.

  • Sept. 17, 2010, 3:17 p.m. CST


    by NADO


  • Sept. 17, 2010, 3:18 p.m. CST


    by lochkray

    Oh yeah. Shame.

  • Sept. 17, 2010, 3:18 p.m. CST


    by Bouncy X

    a canadian movie about muslims that doesn't take place at Tim Horton's? that truly is epic. :P

  • Sept. 17, 2010, 3:28 p.m. CST

    It's not so much the portrayal, I meant, Nado

    by schadenfreudian

    it's the content itself. According to Copernicus, "the film comments on the treatment of women in Muslim society, “honor” killings, religious warfare..." <br> Seems like dicey material.

  • Sept. 17, 2010, 3:39 p.m. CST

    Did someone mention Tim hortons?

    by ndally

    mMm double double and timbits. Fuck starbucks tims is where it's at

  • Sept. 17, 2010, 3:43 p.m. CST


    by NADO

    My comment was meant to illicit a flame war I'm disappointed at your measured response.. Seriously I believe Muslim extremist know that bashing honest portrayal of their society is not going to be taken seriously by the majority. However when a vilifying portrait of them is made even the moderates are rightfully pissed. And the in between can be swayed to the dark side.

  • Sept. 17, 2010, 3:47 p.m. CST

    Sorry, Nado...

    by schadenfreudian

    would it help if I called you a name? <br> You cunt. <br> I guess I'm just a little confused what induces some extremists to freak out (such as this story from Seattle, and what things get a pass.

  • Sept. 17, 2010, 5:42 p.m. CST

    Best movie since Scott Pilgrim was as far as I got

    by torontoxic

    lol <P> Your taste is in your ass.

  • Sept. 17, 2010, 6:19 p.m. CST

    The best Canadian films are from Quebec

    by Bot-Bot

    The rest of Canada needs to learn some lessons from French-Canadian filmmakers. Seriously.

  • Sept. 17, 2010, 6:42 p.m. CST


    by NADO

    I think what induces extremists to freak out is not so important. Christians extremists freak out all the time but the moderate don't pay attention to them. However if some people invaded them, bomb them, financed their brutal governments, robbed their natural ressources, etc.. The moderate might pay more attention to the extremists and be willing to use violence. I mean there is violence from the christian right in the US against abortion clinics and MDs and christians in the US are not oppressed. Imagine if they were. Mohamed cartoons are adding insult to extreme injury. Without the injury you would probably have the same freaking out from the extremist but they would be so isolated that it wouldn't matter.

  • Sept. 17, 2010, 10:51 p.m. CST

    "... with the possible exception of SCOTT PILGRIM..."

    by WalterWhite

    And with that, I shall from this point on take everything Copernicus says with a grain of salt... Seriously, I can understand liking Pilgrim, I can even see it holding a very warm spot in your heart, but BEST movie of the year? You must be joking, or just blinded by all the shiny lights and flashing things...

  • Sept. 18, 2010, 9:20 a.m. CST

    by bames_jond

    This film is an adaptation of a play call "Scorched". I have seen the play and it uses a very "postmodern" staging. That said it is no surprise that the director uses those choices in his film. As for the play, it didn't quite work and was, unfortunately, turgid and unintentionally funny at times (I think this was due to the staging and writing which didn't quite work for live theater). Which, as you know with such a serious subject matter can be very uncomfortable for an audience member. This is the reason I avoided the film because I thought it would again be turgid, and didactic instead of poignant and challenging. It's nice to hear that you thought the film was done well. I will rent it on video.

  • Sept. 18, 2010, 12:08 p.m. CST

    Thanks for your review!

    by Count3D

    The film is playing at VIFF this year. I will do my best to catch a screening!

  • Sept. 18, 2010, 1:29 p.m. CST

    This is generating a huge buzz

    by ObiBen

    It looks like Villeneuve knocked this one out of the park. From an interview on the news yesterday, it's clear that he gave a huge amount of care, research and effort into this project. It also looks like it had a profound impact on him. Looking forward to see this.

  • Sept. 18, 2010, 3:53 p.m. CST

    I'll have to find a way to see this.

    by rabidfnark

    Sadly, I probably won't catch up to it 'til DVD (unless it gets a wide release at some point). It sounds intriguing. Not to mention that proper use of Radiohead in a film brings a smile to my face.

  • Sept. 18, 2010, 10:34 p.m. CST

    "dangerous conformist groupthink"?

    by Monkey Butler

    What the fuck is that supposed to mean? A recording letting people know that it's time to pray is dangerous?

  • Sept. 23, 2010, 3:38 a.m. CST

    The play was better

    by RosaLimonade

    I thought that first sequence with the buzz cuts was kind of cheap. It kind of looked like a music video or some ad. It would have been so much better in complete silence. Directors should not be afraid of silence. (In the play, the role of Abou Tarek was more developped, so the end was much more interesting)