01 February 2011

Incendies and The First Beautiful Thing

Incendies is a plane, boat, and car trip away from being the type of film I like. It's an awful combination of spiritually contrived, thematically earnest, and dramatically dense; a veritable stew of gaudy coincidences and histrionics dressed as profundity. I knew I was in a trouble from the beginning: an opening static shot from a window, reminiscent of a beer (Corona) commercial, that morphs into an orphan populated music video (just wait to see why … oh father), literally edited to a Radiohead song. The movie's litany of dramatic clichĂ©s is almost astounding: an underdeveloped religious backdrop, bolstered by pretense of concern for war-torn nation, illusions of humanitarianism, tonal somberness, visual and thematic heaviness, a fractured narrative timeline, a central character with unshakeable convictions who symbolizes the perseverance of the human spirit, along with parallel blood-related character on quest for true identity and secret brother, crazily inappropriate dramatic devices, and twists that were meant to enlarge our emotions or do who knows what else but I simply kept wishing would please stop, please.

"To teach the enemy what life has taught me." A quote from the movie, but perhaps the director's intentions for the audience while designing this movie.

In my opinion its dramatic technique is far more hysterical and barbaric than any villain within the movie, on its own plane. And there are several grueling scenes and several horrible moments in Incendies. By the end I thought: why were there grueling scenes? Why did I suffer through this? For me there's a brutal amplification of disappointment that comes from feeling the director masqueraded dramatic masturbation for caring, sympathetic discussion. I won't name other movies that I think do this, so as not to digress, but surely you can think of one that affected you this way, and remember the feeling of thinking more harm than good comes when dramatic flamboyance disguises spiritual reductionism: I do not think this film examines the roots of war, hatred, and enduring love, as its synopsis claims.

I didn't like it overall. If you're smarter than me you won't see it, and if you do see it make sure you stay until the end for the dedication: "To our grandmothers." Its main theme is breaking the "chain of anger," which is a pretty good theme that I think is spoiled by severe dramatic excessiveness. It has a sharp, crisp visual style, and a patchwork of culture, religion, family, and identity, but I think it's all for nothing.

Also I saw Italy's The First Beautiful Thing, before Incendies, and enjoyed it much more, even if the experience was soured by what came after. Initially it was difficult for me to become involved with The First Beautiful Thing, though I loved the liveliness of its first scene, because a lot of time is spent on the resentment the husband and son feel for the mother (wife). They fear and sometimes despise the power of her beauty, and seem embarrassed by her self-expression. Slowly, however, the film begins to burst with all signs of life. The primary characters are the mother and her son and daughter, and by the end of the movie I felt close enough to them to be near-tears during a wedding scene.

The Italians can do this very well (in their time Italian neo-realist films were called 'male weepies,' not, I assume, because only men cried during them, but because they were the films men both cried during and wanted to see). The film embraces the triumphs and tragedies of its main characters, and follows a narrative lifeline from 1971 to 1981 to the present; eventually encompassing the sympathetic downstairs neighbor, a sexually adventurous lawyer husband and wife, and a secret son who spoke my favorite line, "This is my sister … I mean my fiancĂ©!" The mother isn't depicted as a full saint, though she sometimes performs saintly deeds, and too the son and daughter are multi-dimensional. A question asked by the non-secret son to his girlfriend (whom he calls his roommate), "Do we want to misunderstand each other?", echoes through the movie. It's a kind of sprawling slice of movie that neither makes a single dramatic point nor attempts one; it wonders if we live emotionally honest and cheerful lives, and acknowledges the almost never ending inundation of obstacles in our life's path.

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