I went into Incendies expecting it to be dark – it is, after all, a war film. Nothing prepared me, however, for the harrowing but masterful experience of the film, based on the acclaimed play by Lebanese-Canadian Wajdi Mouawad. The events of this Oedipal film begin with two twins, Jeanne and Simon, dealing with the aftermath of their mother’s death in Montreal. Upon reading her last will and testament they learn that their father, who they thought had been killed in the civil war in Lebanon, is still alive, and that they also have a half brother, whose existence was previously unknown to them.
While Simon reacts angrily and refuses to confront the revelation, his sister Jeanne takes off to Lebanon to explore her mother’s mysterious past. From this point, the film spirals off into the parallel narratives of Jeanne’s journey of discovery and her mother’s own past. This duality is masterfully played upon, with a remarkable visual resemblance between Jeanne and her younger mother, and it is striking to see Jeanne trace her mother’s footsteps through the same beautiful Lebanese landscapes as she discovers shocking revelation after shocking revelation about her involvement in the Civil War. Ironically, the film was actually filmed in Jordan, and the setting is never explicitly referred to as Lebanon, but the events are very clearly based on those of the Lebanese Civil War in the 1970s and 80s.
Incendies opens in a visually striking manner that sets the tone for the rest of the film. A group of boys, who we can infer are child soldiers, are having their heads shaved in a dark building, isolated in the midst of a desolate mountainous region in Lebanon. Playing a pivotal role in the film, the landscape is depicted as craggy and hostile, scarred by burnt-out and bullet-riddled buildings, desolate and inhospitable as if it were metaphor for the war-ravaged country itself. The hate and sectarian violence that fuelled the conflict seem irrevocably inscribed onto the landscape.
This first scene is telling in another regard. The shock the viewer feels at being confronted with children being prepared for war, and the anger in their eyes, demonstrates the futility of the situation as it was in Lebanon, where hatred was instilled in the young and the cycle of violence that this created was seemingly unbreakable. It is this relentless logic of vengeance that the film sets out to critique, while also providing an agonizing portrait of how inescapable this chain of violence can be.
Rich symbolism and recurring motifs pop up repeatedly during the film, in the most unexpected places. Even Jeanne retracing her mother’s journey through Lebanon in the mid-seventies can be seen as a symbol of the inescapable nature of the past.
The film ends with the mother’s posthumous letter finally being opened and read, where she notes that the cycle of violence has only been broken now that her children know the truth about their and her violent past. It was, of course, her fleeing to Canada that allowed her children to escape this cycle, yet the film treats this escape with ambivalence. The picture painted of Montreal is not a particularly flattering one – grey, cold, and bureaucratic – and for the mother at least, the city never allows her to fully escape her past. For her and her children, particularly in the light of the shocking revelation that concludes Incendies, Montreal too holds the traces of their unspeakably violent heritage.
Through these interactions between one family’s roots in Lebanon and their present lives in Montreal, the film raises questions about memory and coming to terms with the past – questions that are pertinent to Quebec as it continues to forge a renewed, multicultural identity in constant dialogue with its history.