Few events in life combine poignance and relief the way becoming a parent for the first time does. Here is this new life, that of parenthood, begotten by another, by way of a newcomer into this world. Regardless of how decent a parent one ultimately becomes, parenthood is a permanent, life-altering tag. And whether the brood proves another feather in a cap is nary the point. Incendies invokes that sentiment while examining the parent’s past, mainly the balancing act of how much of it is divulged to the child(ren). Equally complicated, is the timing and the solicitation of that information. How much are we privy to from immediate ancestral history? Inversely, are we obliged to share the hardships that predate our direct progeny? Does any of this go against the self-imposed sacrifice to give a better life to those that follow? We are conditioned to presume such sacrifice is a given, a welcome burden and an foregone assumption. Incendies blows up these preconceptions to an incredible extreme. The question that begs itself, if generational gap are now the norm, why then aren’t similar disclosures the rule instead of the exception that they are? Why are they not a rite-of-passage of sorts, instead relegated behind the birds and bees talk? Should we not demand more discourse, and fewer omissions?
It is only when the loose ends are finally untangled to get tied up—in the film—do we fully understand Nawal’s motives behind her dying wish. Her last wish, relayed to her surviving children by a notary, comes off as something of a curveball. A request equal parts simple and erratic, prompting a divisive reaction, particularly undue scorn from her son. A misunderstood parent? A difficult one? We’re not privy to that. What we know is she cut a solemn figure in the one moment of leisure in her life we’re allowed a peek of. That her belongings are to be split among the surviving beneficiaries as they see fit is the least of the heirs’ concerns, because a proper burial is pending her wish be honored first. A wish requisite for another; deliver one letter each to a father they assumed was dead, and a brother they never knew existed. This is the first of many hints of the difficult and insufferable mother her children make her out to be throughout.
An immigrant to Quebec of Middle Eastern origin and mother of twin son and daughter, Jeanne and Simon Marwan, Nawal is suddenly hospitalized before kicking the bucket. A bucket with now two items left unchecked. Her country of origin is fictionalized but the “why” is dramatic license. Her speaking parts are nonexistent in the present, rendering the nature of her relationship with her twins murky to the viewer. She may well have been the distant, reserved, silent parent to many a child’s chagrin. Regardless, Nawal exists in the past, figuratively, and literally, in the flashbacks shown in tandem with Jeanne’s quest to deliver the letters. Both the discoveries (Jeanne’s) and the history (Nawal’s) that unfold arrive with a cruel realization. Jeanne is unceremoniously shown the door by her mother’s village. This is in contrary to the age old tenet of hospitality and honoring one’s guest in Arabia. As more startling realities are unearthed, Simon reluctantly flies in, except his arrival is not to partake in the odyssey. No, to him, it is best to let sleeping dogs lie. In tow are the notary from Quebec and a local notary who, unbeknownst to Simon, will provide the needed logistical support in a side of the world too foreign for a privileged first-generation immigrant to comprehend (cue the warlord who tells Simon blindfolding him is for his benefit). It seems everyone wants to forget Nawal, each for a reason it looks. Not the late Nawal.
The psychological and emotional toll on Nawal’s present self, a shell of a woman since her pregnancy, at last redeem her in the eyes of the children that knew her all their life. Though not simultaneously resolved, for her long lost firstborn, the reconciliation of her absence with the circumstances of their unusual reunion is mutually realized postmortem. If Incendies had any lessons, to a feeble mind it may be a knee-jerk (perhaps politicized) reaction. Something along the lines of not to fuck out of wedlock in the Middle East, or to liberalize every last neighboring district. If the idea of the gap growing with subsequent generations held true, and that it indeed was a measure of the parental instinct of unconditional love, it is only right than the only thing more precious than a child is a grandchild. Thematically, Incendies is a place best not returned to too soon. Even if to fact check the technical goofs (inaccuracies?) pointed out by IMDb comments. Verdict: a devastating finale that, however unlikely, elements of which are not entirely avoidable with the direction this civilization is headed.
Post Script: I’m usually very skeptical of films on the Middle East for lack of authenticity of, first, the language, and the dialect to a lesser degree. The latter is only really detectable to a good ear. Second is the lack of leads fluent in the language. But the thinking goes if you don’t tell your own story somebody else will tell it for you. Not that it excludes Dennis Villeneuve from the subject matter.