“Staggering” – Daily Telegraph. One word strap-lines extracted from reviews by established film critics or culturally respected journals and used to promote films are more often than not taken out of context and invariably meaningless and usually downright misleading. However, on this occasion the particular superlative in question is justly earned and is as fitting an encapsulation of the power and impact of this film as the Title is an unequivocal reference to the searing potency of the incendiary emotional forces at work both literally and figuratively throughout Incendies. (Incendies – translated means “destroyed by fire”)
Just like the opening paragraph to a classic novel where the author sets the scene and tone for what is to come, revealing enough style and substance to whet ones appetite for more; or how a celebrated chef’s perfectly judged entree provides us with the tell tale signs we are in for a gastronomic delight; the director’s deft use of images pregnant with as yet unknown meaning in the opening scenes of the film, along with an eerily meditative score lets us know we are in the hands of an artist whose sensitivities portend a uniquely cinematic experience respectful of the subject matter to be explored.
As we watch the young boys who cannot be more than 8 or 9 years old, dressed in guerrilla uniforms standing in line to get their heads shaved and handed a rifle, we are immediately drawn into the profound implications implicit within the scene – giving rise to a plethora of disturbing moral, ethical and philosophical questions of how and why any of those involved in recruiting these poor children have reached the decision to undertake such a diabolical course of action. Just as we begin to take on board the weight of the images and start to try and make sense of them, the culmination to this opening scene (which provides no context in terms of dialogue or inter-titles telling us where or who these people are) uses the camera’s gaze to draw us deep into the steely eyed stare of an 8 year old child – a look so spine chillingly cold that it begs the question – what are ‘we’ doing that allows such a reality to come into being, and more importantly what can we do to ensure its prevention? A question the film not only explores with unique intelligence and sensitivity but also provides a heartfelt and profoundly simple answer too.
The very next scene cuts to a twin sister & brother being read their mothers will, which informs them that their father whom they thought was dead is in fact still alive, and that they also have a brother they never knew they had. Their mother has left them a sealed envelope each, and a request that they deliver it in person to their brother and father respectively. The journey of discovery that ensues and the moral complexity of the narrative that is revealed is both emotionally devastating and deeply disturbing, and yet at the same time the wisdom that lies at the very heart of its message is a beautiful prayer that is an ode to the power of love and forgiveness, the latter in the name of the former being exalted as the only solution capable of putting an end to the vicious circle of escalating violent retribution that is at the heart of all wars be they religious, political or economic.
Throughout Incendies we are presented with some horrific scenes of pure barbarism that drive home in no uncertain terms how the cycle of revenge and retribution begins, and it is through the visceral power of these scenes that we gain an appreciation of the emotions incited when faced with such demonic and inhuman acts (in this case committed in the name of “Christ”) that one can fully understand why anyone who has witnessed such an atrocity would feel the need to take up arms in order to rid the world of those individuals capable of such vile & repugnant acts and remove the spectre that haunts them. Yet it is precisely this impulse to fight fire with fire, which fuels the hatred that is the catalyst for demonising not just the individual perpetrators of such inhuman crimes but all who claim allegiance to that particular cause – and in turn making enemies of them all. The beauty and power of this film, lies in the way the story manages to avoid the usual clichés associated with such tropes by choosing to focus on how the personal tragedy that befalls those who undertake such courses of action, can also be the path to redemption when they are forced to confront the folly of their actions and in turn make a choice of how to make things right – and how in the end it is Love and the ability to forgive that shows the greatest strength and a way to break the cycle of retribution.
At a time when the violence of the Arab-Israeli conflict seems to be escalating yet again, the message in Incendies could hardly be more prescient.
Director: Denis Villeneuve