May 1, 2011
Looks like this year, except for the icy sharp Dogtooth, (I haven't seen the Algerian Outside The Law), the foreign language Oscar nominees have one thing in common, and that is they all are super-overwrought. In 2010 there was a nice mix of genre in the category: the great gangster movie, Un Prophet, genre defying stuff like The White Ribbon and more romantic fluff, like the winning The Secret in Her Eyes.
This year, apparently the world at large is a vale of tears and a house of horrors. The winner, Susanne Bier's In A Better World is like a classy Danish telenovela taking place in Denmark and Africa, Mexico's Biutiful is a teary melodrama with Javier Bardem, and Incendies, from Canada, is like a Greek tragedy in the Lebanese civil war.
Incendies takes the prize for can you top this in human suffering (both the characters' and the audience's). It teeters between morbid gruesomeness and raw emotional power. I found the entire premise, if symbolically charged, very hard to believe. Not that I cannot believe that in a civil war neighbors savagely kill women and children and unarmed innocents, or that I am innocent of the atrocities that human beings commit in the name of religion, but the story is too contrived.
The premise seems rather fantastical. A dying mother leaves her Canadian twins (who are in their twenties) a will in which they have to find their father and their brother in Lebanon and deliver letters to them so she can rest in peace. As the twins set out to do the task, they are confronted with the bitter history of their family and their mother's country. The horrors and revelations pile up; the movie goes back and forth between the kids searching for the story in the present and flashbacks to the terrible past. I understand that through this harrowing adventure the filmmakers want to make a powerful statement about the incestuous self-destruction of a civil war, but I have problems with movies that stack the dramatic, emotional deck to the point of straining credulity.
The movie is based on a play, yet my feeling as I was watching, was that this heavily symbolic story would probably work better on the page, as a novel.
Parts of it are very effective, and the movie captures that Middle Eastern tribal feel really well. At one point, looking at the olive groves in the parched land beneath the merciless sun (Lebanon is played by Jordan), I wondered if the particular geography of the area inspires the worst kind of murderous divine frenzy in its inhabitants, because God knows the entire region is nuts. To this day, it's like a bunch of tribal shepherds hating each others' guts and killing each others' sheep. It would be awesome if it would stop.
My favorite scene is when Jeanne, the female twin, travels to a village searching for someone who knew her mother. She is received by a chatty group of women who are curious and hospitable. Nobody speaks a language in common and it is a beautiful moment of Jeanne being in the place of her origins and at the same time, a total stranger. Then, as someone is found to translate and Jeanne explains who she is, the women have a wild argument in front of her and end up casting her away; the hospitality becomes hostility in a second. It's a great scene that depicts the clannish stubborness of tribal notions of honor and the insistence in not forgiving old, festering grievances, which is after all, the tragic story of the region.
The revelation at the conclusion of Incendies goes all out, in the spirit of a Greek tragedy, like a horrifying but cleansing catharsis. The kids learn a terrible truth and all I could think of, is how can they live with this knowledge? This is the kind of thing that fucks you up for life. I'm not sure if this is the point the filmmakers wants to make, since they prefer to give a sense of closure and of peace, rather than explore the terrible burden of the truth. This seems to be at odds with the graphic and violent tone of the rest of the film and strikes me as facile. It's supposed to make the audience feel better after two hours of relentless pummeling with human horror.