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INCENDIES (2011) (****)

What if upon your mother's death you learned that your father was still alive and that you had a brother you never knew about? Then you were asked to find them. Through the process you learn shocking details of your mother's past. What if the woman that always seemed a little weird was actually a legend in her native country?

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What if upon your mother's death you learned that your father was still alive and that you had a brother you never knew about? Then you were asked to find them. Through the process you learn shocking details of your mother's past. What if the woman that always seemed a little weird was actually a legend in her native country?

Jeanne (Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin, TAKING THE PLUNGE) and Simon Marwan (Maxim Gaudette, CHEECH) are faced with these questions when their mother Nawal (Lubna Azabal, PARADISE NOW) passes away suddenly. He doesn't want anything to do with his mother's surprising last request, but Jeanne knows that she will be haunted by it if she doesn't go looking for her father. As details, she will pull her brother into the search, simply because it is too emotional to do it on her own.

Nawal grew up in a fictional Middle East country that is not far of from Lebanon. She was a Christian and made the mistake of falling in love with a Muslim. The rest of the details of her journey that led to her to move with her twin children to Canada I will leave  secret. What she experiences through war will test her faith and beliefs. She will endure torture and rape to the extents her children couldn't imagine. But she comes through it with a surprising perspective.

Some of the revelations might be seen as lurid, but they actually work profoundly in support of the grander theme. Director Denis Villeneuve shows the cycle of violence that radicalizes generation have generation in the war torn parts of the Middle East. In setting the action in a fictional place the story envelopes the entire region in the message. Violence breeds violence. But it's hatred for those different than you and your family that really starts it all. Any action can be justified if it's being conducted by your side.

Azabal gives a heart wrenching performance as a woman who sings to free herself from her hardships. Through everything, her will is strong, partly fueled by a quiet rage. Only late in life does she find unexpected closure and ultimately forgiveness. A chance encounter makes her rethink how we are connected to all humans even our enemies. Her character might be dead from the start, but this is her story.

Desormeaux-Poulin and Gaudette are given witness roles. But their journey to discover their mother's past and fulfill her final wish adds mystery and tension to the story. The more they learn the more we wonder if it is safe to continue. Villeneuve does a brilliant job letting the audience in on a bit of information before the characters to make us fearful for them, but keeps back the big bombshells so we witness the explosions with the characters. In the end, it makes us wonder how much do we really know our parents? What secrets do they plan to take to their graves? Who in the world knows these secrets and how different is their view of your parent from yours?

The Canadian film was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. The darker material must have been a turn off compared to the easier humanistic message of winner IN A BETTER WORLD. That film is a more conventional Hollywood drama while this film has more in common with a Korean shocker. Though it was nominated last year, it didn't get a U.S. release until this year. So now it gets to be a 2010 Oscar nominee and one of the very best films of 2011.

At the core of the story, the film argues that anyone, due to their circumstances, can be driven to hate and violence. At some point someone has to break the cycle. Many people who hate have mothers that love them.

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Rick DeMott
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