The Incendies Conundrum

The thing about the Oscar-nominated French film Incendies is that I can’t use the adjective that best describes it without giving it away totally.

Taking place in an unspecified place and time where Christian Nationalists are warring with Islamic groups, and evoking a whole lot the mid-‘70s Lebanese civil war, this is the story of a woman named Nawal who dies and who leaves behind a will instructing her children to find their father and their brother, and to not give her a proper burial and headstone till they’ve delivered letters to them both.

Thing is, bro and sis knew of no brother and thought their father to be dead. Also, Nawal was apparently a kind of crappy mom, so bro isn’t really interested in the mission.

The rest of the movie is a segment of Nawal woven in with a segment of her children trying to discover the truth.

Along the way, we see the sorts of atrocities that might make a woman off and that generally remind us, while war is Hell, war in the Middle East is a special kind of Hell. This is a brutal movie, and the brutality is as senseless as it is horrifying; You can probably tell from this whether this is the sort of movie you find worth seeing.

A lot of people who do will also find it moving. If you don’t, and you see it anyway, you might just be disgusted.

For myself, I thought it was good-ish. I’d watch it and remember some good performances and not think too much more of it, but it insists on itself, as the kids are saying these days. It wants you to think about it, and it doesn’t really hold up to a lot of sustained thought.

It is ridiculously contrived, which is necessary in order to get to its desired shock ending. That’s not really the sort of thing that bugs me, really, but with no factual basis, it also means they worked very hard to put all this brutality on to film. It was supposed to have meaning.

Was it warranted? Well, the point of the movie is to show the horror of war and how it shapes Nawal, with the problem being that we only see the horror and not the shaping. She has a character arc but the movie doesn’t really tie it to what she’s experienced. She’s like a little piece of flotsam floating upon the tides.

And then they choose not to show certain violence that would seem to be central to her character development. I mean, they put us through some crap early on, and it’s almost like they ran out of heart in the third act. We also don’t ever see the direct after-effect, so Nawal jumps from situation to situation in what (to the viewer) seems almost random.

Like I said, I thought it was good, but I don’t think it warrants thinking on too hard. It feels like there was an agenda overpowering the story. I liked the Oscar-winner much better, where the story seemed to complicate any attempt at simple messaging.

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