Starring: Lubna Azabal, Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin, Maxim Gaudette
Distributor: Hopscotch Films
Runtime: 130 mins. Reviewed in Nov 2011
This Canadian movie, sub-titled in French, was nominated as Best Foreign Language Film of the year in the 2011 Academy Awards, and it won Best Feature Film at the 2011 Adelaide Film Festival. The movie is adapted from the work of a Lebanese–born playwright, Wajdi Mouawad, who wrote “Scorched” for the stage. The film tells the story of twins, Jeanne (Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin) and Simon (Maxim Gaudette), who try to unravel the mystery of their mother, Nawal (Lubna Azabal), who leaves them some unusual instructions in her will.
Nawal knew that there were secrets that her children never suspected, but she wanted to reveal them only after she died. They did not know she was recruited to assassinate, and she had been interred and tortured in a Christian militia prison. Through letters to her lawyer, Jean Lebel (Remy Girard), for whom she worked, she asks her children to go to the Middle East, to try to find their father and their brother. Simon thinks his mother has to be deranged. He was sure his father was dead, and he never knew that he had a brother. Jeanne wants to respect her mother’s dying wishes, and she sets out in search of her mother’s past. Soon, she calls for Simon to help her in her distress. Their journey together reveals extraordinary things about their mother, and their own lives. Their voyage takes them on a dramatic trip into their mother’s past, where they discover that hatred, anger, and racism have touched them intimately.
The acting in this movie is wonderful, and the film’s scripting is razor-tight. Nawal was born an Arab Christian in an unspecified Middle Eastern country, fictionally called “Faud” in the movie. The country is strongly reminiscent of Lebanon in the 1975-1990 civil war. During that time, they learn that Nawal, as a young woman, witnessed the honour murder of her lover by Arab Christians. Her lover’s killing pulled her across to the Muslim world, and she was led by feelings of vengeance and retribution to an act of extreme violence for which she was imprisoned. The film’s images are captured superbly by its cinematographer, Andre Turpin. Turpin manages to capture the beauty of the land that he photographs, but also the brutality of life in it.
This is a film that is emotionally very powerful. Its story-line unfolds haphazardly, but the pieces of its puzzle come together with amazing force, helped greatly by the realistic and poetically inspired imagery of a country ravaged by war. The personal hatreds, brutality against women, racism and religious resentment that the film shows are palpably real, and the drama unfolds like a classical Greek tragedy in structure, style and content. As in Greek tragedy, the dramatic coincidences accumulate to an utterly convincing emotional climax.
The film is a thrilling tribute to the powerful force of love, and the rejection of hatred, and it argues with searing intensity that “the chain of anger” has to be broken to let the power of love break through. One wonders why Nawal put her children through such torment in search of things they didn’t know, and the revelations occur as the coincidences keep happening; however, the overall force of the film is tremendous, and the film is deeply affecting. Rarely, does one expect that a movie dealing with killing, religious intolerance, torture, and rape will offer such a compelling statement of love and forgiveness. Nawal’s final words written in letters to be opened by her children, their father and their brother, after all has been revealed, literally eat into the soul.
The title of this film refers to an inferno that leaves “something totally destroyed, totally transformed”, and it expresses a metaphor for the film as a whole. This is a masterfully directed movie about conflicts that torment humans, wherever they are, and whatever they do. It explores its revelations amidst the horrors of war, and it never lets go of the notion that life itself is an inferno that both destroys and transforms.
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