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On Movies: 'Incendies' explores painful scars of divided families, countries

This article first appeared in a St. Louis Beacon, May 19, 2011 - An ancient plot that never grows old -- the search for a father through perilous lands -- enriches the narrative of "Incendies," a compelling French-Canadian film that begins and ends in Montreal, but mainly takes place in a war-devastated, fictional Middle Eastern country very much like Lebanon.

"Incendies" -- the French word means "fires" or "conflagrations" -- tells a complicated and multilayered story with the energy and suspense of a good thriller, but it never loses its strong moral sense. The film is about many things, including the persistent and sometimes painful bonds of family, and the tragic absurdity of human beings killing one another for supposed religious or tribal differences. It is based on a play by the Lebanese-Canadian writer Wajdi Mouawad and was directed by Quebec-born filmmaker Denis Villeneuve.

Jeanne and Simon Marwan are twins whose mother, Nawal (Lubna Azabal), emigrated from the Middle East to Canada when they were very young. As they grow to young adults, she refuses to speak in any detail about her past. When she dies, the twins are each presented with a letter to deliver unopened to a family member they did not realize existed.

Jeanne (Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin) is told to take a letter to her father, the father the twins believed had died many years ago. And Simon (Maxim Gaudette) is told to deliver a letter to his brother. Neither of the twins had ever heard their mother speak of a third sibling. To find the brother and the father, the twins will first have to trace the trail their mother followed many years before.

Jeanne begins the search by traveling to a Beirut-like city where her mother once had lived. Then the movie flashes back in time, and we meet the mother as a young woman. Nawal has been raised as a Christian in a small village. She falls in love with a Muslim boy, infuriating her family. When the romance ends in tragedy, Nawal flees the village for the city, but she is unable to escape the effects of the civil war that soon engulfs the country. Her life is shattered, and she becomes trapped between factions in the violence and brutality of the insane sectarian slaughter.

The story proceeds on two tracks decades apart. In the past, we watch the mother go from village to city and back to the countryside, trying to survive. And, in the present, we follow Jeanne and Simon as they follow their mother's trail, looking for the brother they never knew existed and the father they thought was dead. As the dual narrative leads us through a nation filled with hatred and suspicion, whether at war or, some years later, settled into an uneasy peace, the suspense slowly builds, and the moral force of the film grows stronger.

Director Denis Villeneuve, who filmed much of "Incendies" in Jordan and skillfully used computer graphics to recreate bombed-out cities and fire-blasted villages, tells the complex story well. The film is a bitterly ironic affirmation of the absurdity of the ancient tribal and religious hatreds that cling to the human race well into the 21st century, and the denouement is powerful and very much to the point.

Opens Friday, May 20

'The Greatest Movie Ever Sold'

The faux-naive documentarian Morgan Spurlock, who literally made himself sick subsisting on nothing but fast food for "Super Size Me," specializes in launching heavy artillery at easy targets from oblique angles. In "The Greatest Movie Ever Sold," his target is product placement in motion pictures. His goal -- to fund the movie through product placement.

After showing us the ubiquity with which name brand items are displayed in Hollywood movies, Spurlock beckons us to follow as tries to get companies to give him money in exchange for their products being featured in his documentary, the one he is shooting as he is making his pitch.

Spurlock, with his 1970s porn-film moustache and his slick-hick talk, looks and sounds like a flim-flam man, and that's what he unabashedly is. If you accept that fact, "The Greatest Movie Ever Sold" is intermittently amusing; I particularly liked the scenes where Spurlock joked about the commercialism of the mass media with surprisingly jovial Ralph Nader and Noam Chomsky. And the clout wielded by one Hollywood power-broker who represents companies whose products are featured in movies is disquieting. But eventually the poke-in-the-ribs irony of the whole thing gets tiresome and repetitious.

If you're looking for evidence of the pervasiveness of product placement in the media, you need look no further than Fox's Channel 2 when there is a storm, or the threat of a storm, or the hint of a threat of a storm. When the Doppler reds and yellows and oranges start creeping northeastward across the map toward St. Louis, when the voices of the weathercasters increase in volume and pitch as they advise heading for the basement, look at the lower right portion of the screen. You will see the name of a roofing company, and an 800 number to call, in case you might need it.

Opens Friday May 20

Harper Barnes, the author of Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement, is a special contributor to the Beacon. 

Harper Barnes
Harper Barnes' most recent book is Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement