After missing it in Gatineau back in October, I finally attended a screening of "Incendies", a film by French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, based on the play by the Lebanese-Canadian playwright Wajdi Mouawad, Art Director of the National Arts Centre in Ottawa. I had mixed feelings about the film. The story is great - it keeps you on the edge of your seat, and the film is shot beautifully, but what bothered me was the location and the casting choices.
The film never refers to a specific location, all we know is that it takes place in the "Middle East" (read: Arab world). I read a story in the Globe that said all the names of the villages are made up in order for people not to associate a specific country with the film, but if you are familiar with the events of the Lebanese Civil War, you are aware the story is based on it. After all, referring to a 15 year war in the Arab region that involved people from refugee camps, Christians, Muslims, in a place where people speak an abundance of French, whose skyline is covered with destroyed buildings and make numerous references to the South is obviously Lebanon. With these facts, Villeneuve inadvertently identifies a location. By shooting in Jordan and not attempting to mask the location, he identifies another location. Anyone with knowledge about the region can identify location #2: the dialects of the actors, the street signs (Zarqa, Rainbow Street), the desert like appearance of the place, the clean streets, the random shots of Jordanian licence plates and a red, green, black and white flag with a white star, are all clues. I could not help but think of this throughout the film. For me, location plays a huge role, and its common for one city to substitute for another, but masking a location without truly masking it won't make me think I'm somewhere else.
Overall, the acting was convincing, however, the casting was odd. Belgian-Moroccan actress Lubna Azabal plays the lead role of Nawal Marwan. She has tried to convince us of her Levantine accent before (Paradise Now), but people (read: Arabs) wondered if she had a speech impediment because it didn't sound right. Lubna is a versatile and talented actress and her performance in Incendies is proof of that, however, her accent is not the least bit convincing, and leaves one hoping she speaks more French than Arabic in the film. And then there's Allan Altman in an Arabic speaking role. Allan deserves a big congratulations on learning Arabic and not butchering it too hard for the role, but it was obvious he did not speak the language. I do not understand why no Arabic speaking actor was cast in this role. Altman's character came 3/4 into the film and there isn't a lack of actors who speak French and Arabic.
Incendies is worth watching. The film is visually pleasing, the plot is strong, well scripted, and featured some great acting. For those that are not too familiar with the region and who do not speak Arabic, what I just mentioned will not bother you, but if you do, then it most likely will. I'm just giving you something to think about.