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EntertainmentWhy has Incendies, arguably Denis Villeneuve's best film, been overshadowed by the...

Why has Incendies, arguably Denis Villeneuve’s best film, been overshadowed by the massive success of Dune?


With the combined of his last three films being well over half-a-billion dollars, director Denis Villeneuve has now perched himself at the pinnacle of the pyramid. He's poised to deliver the biggest hit of his career with Dune: Part Two, the second instalment of his two-part adaptation of Frank Herbert's science-fiction novel — both films have received heaps of acclaim, with Part Two being described in some quarters as one of the best sequels ever made. But before he was surfing the sand dunes of Arakkis, Villeneuve was telling smaller, more daring stories in his home country of Canada. Incidentally, the best of the lot — Incendies — was also about overzealous characters waging a holy war in the desert.

Released in 2010, the film went on to (deservingly) earn an Oscar nomination in the foreign language category. But in the years since, as Villeneuve's influence has grown, Incendies has strangely been erased from his ever-expanding list of achievements. When his fans highlight the incredible decade-long run that he's been on, they tend to begin with his first Hollywood project, 2013's Prisoners. This run also includes true masterpieces like Sicario, Arrival and Blade Runner 2049. But despite his recent success, Incendies remains the best film of his career — an early indicator of his preoccupations as a storyteller and his talents as a visual stylist.

Set in a that feels both viscerally real and yet slightly fantastical, Incendies is part biblical epic and part Greek tragedy that attempts — under the guise of a mystery movie — to investigate themes as evergreen as blind faith, the cost of war, and the human tendency to self-destruct. It begins with the recently deceased Nawal Marwan, an Arab immigrant who'd lived a seemingly ordinary life in Canada, sending her adult twins, Jeanne and Simon, on an epic mission with a list of strict instructions. Jeanne and Simon are told that they must track down the father they've never known and the brother they never knew they had, and hand them a pair of letters.

Jeanne's quest takes her to an unnamed country in the Middle East, where she traces her way back to her mother's home village, and then to the prison where Nawal spent several years and earned herself the moniker ‘The Woman who Sings'. Through a series of flashbacks, Villeneuve places us right next to Nawal herself, as she bears a child out of wedlock, has that child snatched away from her moments after birth, and goes on an epic journey of her own. On her odyssey, Nawal finds herself in the middle of a war that seems to have been going on forever.

Having already experienced bigotry firsthand — Nawal was outcast from her Christian community after falling in love with a Muslim man — she witnesses an act of violence that changes her forever. Nawal's bus is attacked by members of an armed militia, who mercilessly annihilate everybody on board, including a child. But her life is miraculously spared. The cruelty that she sees that day transforms her into something of a political assassin, and some might compare this transformation to Paul Atreides' arc in Dune. Although at no point does Villeneuve vilify Nawal. How could he, after putting her through what he does, even before that haunting final twist. The world has been horrid to her; he can't just pile on.

It is this transformation, however, that lands her in prison, under the thumb of the same Muslims on whose behalf she'd carried out her act of vengeance. The man that she murdered, ironically enough, was a fellow Christian. It's all meaningless, Incendies seems to be screaming; all this violence and anger for a made-up belief system. But the backdrop that felt timeless in 2010 — the bus burning scene was inspired by a real-life incident from decades ago — feels positively timely in 2024, as we half pay attention to the ongoing conflict in Gaza. Jeanne and Simon, in many ways, are supposed to be our surrogates in this strange yet familiar land — sheltered, slightly selfish, but undeniably sensitive.

The Northlines is an independent source on the Web for news, facts and figures relating to Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh and its neighbourhood.

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