Monday, February 21, 2011

Incendies:: Loss and Lost in the Geopolitics of War

I'm hoping anyone who saw the Wajdi Mouawad play, Incendies [Eng] {Scorched}, will have an open mind when it comes to Denis Villeneuve's film adaptation. He purposefully distanced himself from the play, which I feel was a necessary move.

I saw a mesmerizing remount of Scorched at Tarragon in 2009, which is doing a production of another Mouawad play, "Forests", later in the Spring. Scorched hits you like a punch in the gut, seamlessly merging the interpersonal with the geopolitical in the context of globalized world, culminating in a big Chinatown {1974}-like {possible spoiler, highlight to see} reveal. Two twins are forced to reckon with their mother's death and a history of detachment on her part. We grow to sympathize with the twins, as they struggle with the final riddles of what appears to be a "difficult" mother being just that from beyond the grave.

I think the play would be unbearable without the levity afforded by the good-natured notary and the smart and engaging dialogue. I don't think a "faithful" adaptation would translate to film very well. Borrowing from Marshall McLuhan, film is a "hot" medium. Film commands your attention. Stage is "cooler" medium. As a produced work, the stage requires more interpretation by the audience. There is more abstraction and reliance upon referents to the real. Stage performances are more immediate because of this, more in your face, because there are fewer degrees of freedom in stage production, in contrast to film. Film is allowed the opportunity to tell stories using more visual rhetorics; a greater control over the viewer's gaze and greater use of effects that can mimic or construct a given reality.

The film loses much of the levity and eloquent dialogue in favour of a visual rhetoric that tells the story, but in a disjunctive manner with respect to the play. Part of this visual rhetoric uses the landscapes and cityscapes of Montréal and the unspecified Middle Eastern nation {the film was shot in Jordan} over time to help tell the story. There are extreme close-ups of the detritus of a war-ravaged nation, showing how the everyday was suddenly shattered. The physical violence depicted in the film is merciless and brutal, but not so constant or cartoonish as to desensitize the viewer.

The film unravels the mystery of who the mother, Nawal Marwan, of her set of adult fraternal twins, Simon and Jeanne, really was. What caused her to be the way she was and why were the twins never told of their father and brother? Why all the secrets? The detachment? Solving the mystery, which starts in present-day Montréal, but goes back to the Middle East circa 1970 to 1985, is done through a series of flashbacks peel away the layers of a truth that was kept a secret because of pain and the darkness of human nature. The storyline of the secret truth is punctuated by good deeds and various individuals' sense of personal ethics. 

The interesting aspects of the film was the intersection of culture, gender, politics, and diaspora, which is quite timely given recent events in the Arab world. When the idealistic Nawal clamours for the world to acknowledge the violent acts by a fictional faction, we can't help but think of the current struggles against oppression worldwide. Her once peaceful idealism hits the ugliest of realities head-on, resulting in a circumstance that no matter how modern her thinking becomes, is inextricably tied to culture and the social ties to those in the violent political movement she became an operative in. The most sobering aspect of the film is how a monster was made in Abou Tarek, a deadly sniper and Nawal's torturer, when she was imprisoned. The product of the collateral damage of traditional cultural values and a political war, we're left to ponder how the damage to those like Abou can manifest itself in those who fall through the cracks and are searching desperately for identity {not just in the personal sense of knowing one's parents, but also in a philosophical or cultural sense}. Incendies is a film that reminds us that in war and social struggle there is tragedy and loss on a personal level, resulting in lost individuals and the enduring fallout of its effects.

The film has standout performances by Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin as the twin sister, Jeanne, and Lubna Azabal as her mother, Nawal. Both actors portrayed characters going through extreme emotions in extraordinary situations. Lubna's portrayal of the trajectory of Nawal's life is powerful and moving, taking a character that we are unsure of at the beginning of the film and getting us to have compassion and understanding. Mélissa's Jeanne takes on the journey set in motion by her mother's will with determination, unearthing the ugliness of the aftermath of her mother's past, getting her reluctant brother involved, and portraying the gut-wrenching reaction to the truth being revealed. Finally, I also feel the film adds to a growing list of notable Québec films, including Mon Oncle Antoine {1971}Le Déclin de l'empire américain {1986}Jésus de Montréal {1989}Octobre {1994}, and Les Invasions barbares {2003}.

Twitterversion:: [blog] Film review of Denis Villeneuve's Incendies, adapted from Wajdi Mouawad's play. Loss and Lost in the Geopolitics of War @Prof_K

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