For someone like myself, who makes his living working in film, it would seem perilous to declare a “favourite” Canadian filmmaker. However, it’s a no-brainer that one of them is Denis Villeneuve. Ever since I saw his Genie award-winning Maelstrom, I knew I was watching someone who was not burdened by the shackles of mediocrity so commonly on display in the end-product of so many emerging or established Canadian filmmakers.
Incendies, nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2011 Academy Awards, is devastatingly good. It tells the story of fraternal twins who, while coping with the death of their mother, are handed two envelopes by the estate lawyer. One is to give to their father, whom they presume is either dead or estranged. The other is to give to their brother, whom they’ve never known existed. Neither know what any of this means and what follows is a side-winding story that is equal parts tragic and breath-taking.
Based on a play by Wajdi Mouawad, the film spends most of its time in a Middle Eastern country that is never identified for the audience. It’s a curious technique which may frustrate some, and yet it was refreshing for a film to sidestep our cultural preconceptions or prejudicial baggage by focusing strictly on the unfolding of its complex tale and its toll on the characters, past and present. At the core of Incendies is the devastating journey of the twins’ mother, played by Lubna Azabal, told in flashbacks.
There are moments of heightened violence in this film. Moments where you say to yourself: no, no, no – please don’t show us what I think you are about to show us. And yet, to Villeneuve’s credit – something I noticed in Maelstrom – he is one of a short list of directors capable of portraying material which may be extremely unsettling in ways which are neither insensitive to the audience nor disrespectful to the spirit of the story. Yet, the weight of what is ultimately revealed in the circuitous route of the twins will certainly haunt the audience long after the film is done.