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Film Review


Lebanon, a hugely diverse and progressive country until about 1970, was once the most westernized of all Arab countries. Beirut, the capital, and a thoroughly modern city that was the trading capital of the Middle East, was called the Pearl of the Orient. But from 1975 through 1990, Lebanon had a civil war that was brutal even by Middle East standards. The causes were complex but basically the Maronites (Christians), many of whom were Falangists and far to the right, attempted to maintain their political dominance over the growing Muslim population. The Muslims, in turn, were divided into Shiite and Sunni communities, and both persecuted the Druze. The Shiites created Hezbollah, a radical group dedicated to the destruction of Israel and the expulsion of Christians from Lebanon. Palestinian refugees, denied citizenship and jobs, festered in refugee camps. Two invasions by Israel, triggered first by the PLO and then in 2006 by Hezbollah rocket attacks, further devastated southern Lebanon. Syrian control of Lebanon, which included Syrian army troops, fueled resentment, culminating in the assassination of the Lebanese prime minister in 2005 when he attempted to force the Syrians to leave. In a short period Lebanon had descended into a hell on earth, where hatred, revenge, and violence became a culture. Out of a population of about 3.5 million, at least 150,000 were killed, 200,000 wounded, and nearly a million people driven from their homes.

Since most Christian Lebanese spoke French and Arabic, many emigrated to Canada, and one of them, Wajdi Mouawad, wrote a play called Scorched. Based on this play, Denis Villeneuve, a Canadian director and writer, has produced "Incendies", a compelling epic that follows two generations of a Lebanese family from Lebanon to Canada and back to Lebanon. The central character is Nawal Marwan, now living in Canada, with her two adult children, Jeanne and Simon. Jeanne has taken her mother to a public pool, and while there her mother becomes immobilized and cannot speak. She is taken to a hospital, on the verge of death, and only later do we learn what caused her to have an apparent stroke. Then the scene changes to a group of young Arab boys having their heads shaved by tough men with guns. The camera focuses on one young boy, who glares unflinchingly into the camera. Nawal dies, and her attorney (called a notary in Canada) reads her will to her children. It stuns them, and includes "bury me naked, face down, ............ with no stone to mark my grave until promises have been kept"........ "Then you can put a stone on my grave". Nawal had worked as a secretary for this attorney for the past 15 years, and he is committed to seeing that her last wishes are carried out. He gives Jeanne and Simon two sealed envelopes, one addressed to "your father" and the other to "your brother", with instructions to find them and deliver these letters. Both are totally unaware that they had a brother, and never knew their father. Their mother's past was a mystery to the children, and Jeanne is determined to find their father and brother. Simon wants none of it, but Jeanne goes to Lebanon, to her mother's village, where she is not well received, and finally hears an astonishing story from a man who knew her mother.

The film then flashes back to Nawal as a young woman, fleeing her village with her lover. Her brothers intercept them, determined that their sister not stain the family name by marrying a Muslim. Nawal's life changes in an instant. She is pregnant, delivers her child, which her grandmother gives to a nearby orphanage. Nawal is forced to leave, and goes to college in Beirut, where she becomes a journalist. She witnesses the beginning of the civil war, which will last for 15 bloody years. Nawal becomes determined to find her son, so in the midst of this warfare, travels to the south to search for the orphanage. Refugees are streaming north, but Nawal finds a bus headed south, and begins what will become her nightmare. The mother and her daughter's stories proceed, 30 years apart, with the film cutting back and forth, often at the same location. Jeanne's odyssey begins to reveal long buried truths. Nawal's story is complicated but clearly told, often grim, but compelling, with a stunning ending.

The actors are unknown to American audiences but their acting is on a level rarely seen. Lubna Azabal, a Belgian actress with a Moroccan father, plays Nawal with acting that is beyond acting. There is an enormous cast with even the most minor first rate. The cinematography is outstanding, with many lingering close ups of the characters. The camera has made the terrible beautiful, from destroyed villages to panoramas of rugged Middle East landscapes. Most of the Lebanon portion of the story was filmed on location in Jordan. There is some digital manipulation of urban settings, but done so well that the scenes of devastated parts of Beirut were astonishingly realistic. The score is sparse and understated, most of it composed for the film. "Incendies" is very powerful, dark, with some brutal scenes, yet essentially restrained as it tells the tragic story of religious extremism destroying a nation. This is film making at it's highest level, and has won a number of major awards, including a nomination for Best Foreign Film. This a brilliant film and I was enormously moved. Easily makes my ten best films list but see it on the big screen. Playing at the Embarcadero.

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