All In The Family

Now that I’ve seen Denis Villeneuve‘s Incendies (NY/LA, 4.22), I know that the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar race is probably down to a choice between Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu‘s Biutiful and Susanne Bier‘s A Better World. Because as compelling and anchored and finely chiselled as Incendies is, it’s such an ugly and searing portrait of tribal rage, ignorance, cruelty and sadism that it’s finally one of those widely admired films that you’ll never want to see a second time, or even think about once it’s over.

Most critics have called Biutiful a tough thing to sit through, and it is that in some ways. But Incendies is such a grim march and so committed to the probing of an oppressive and penetrating vision of downer-hood that it would easily whip Inarritu’s ass in a one-on-one gloom match.

The story (based on Wajdi Mouawad‘s play of the same title) is clearly a reflection of the Lebanon horrors (Israeli army plus Christian militia vs. Lebanese PLO and non-combatants) of the ’70s and early ’80s. Aaah, to be immersed in primitive Arab-Lebanese-Christian rage on all sides — idiotic tribal traditions, threats of honor killings, sniper shootings, rural women shunning wronged women, torture, prison rape, machine-gun slaughter, burnt bodies, more torture, prolonged imprisonment…good stuff!

You’re sitting there going “boy, this sure is a good film…I wonder how much longer until it’s over?” I went out to the lobby around the 90-minute mark and asked the guy. He called the projectionist and got off the phone and gave me a look and told me to grim up and hang in there — I had another 35 to 40 minutes to go. Eff me. I really hate it when films thrust me into backward patriarchal societies and then block off all escape routes. What a completely nowhere fundamentalist culture we’re stuck with in this film, a world defined by rock and scrub brush and dust and hills and chained to such ongoing hate.

And to be doubly stuck in a lonnnng quest-for-the-ancestral-truth movie in which clue after clue is sought and uncovered, blah blah. Clue, hint, clue, hint…are we getting closer to finding out what really happened? No? It has to get there eventually, right?

Incendies is about a youngish Canadian brother and a sister whose Lebanese mother has recently died, and who are more less forcibly engaged in a search for their missing father and missing brother. And for all of it to end with a Chinatown-ish resolution that gives new meaning to the term “all in the family”? Which doesn’t really illuminate anything in a real-world sort of way? I don’t know, bro. A very “good” film but if I never see Incendies again it’ll be too soon. And I’ve seen Biutiful three times.

  • DiscoNap

    BIUTIFUL has Bardem and the best ending of the year. It also requires tremendous patience, but rewards it too.

  • nouvelle_vague

    I thought Biutuful was over the top in its misery, but Incendies was terrific. I’d watch it again right now.

  • Kristopher Tapley

    Couldn’t stand this one. I’m hoping for the Bier, a better take on similar thematic ideas. And the most human of the nominees.

  • Terry McCarty

    So how exactly would iINCENDIES compare to DOGTOOTH (certainly a challenging sit for unprepared audiences)?

  • ModernLifeIsRubbish

    So, you’re saying it’s no King’s Speech.

  • BobbyLupo

    Is this one of those categories where the voters have to prove they’ve seen all the movies?

  • BobbyLupo

    If it is, I can’t imagine that all the actors who voted for Bardem are going to want to watch the movie again in an official screening in order to make sure it definitely counts.

  • Kristopher Tapley

    Also, and not that it’s not par for the course around here, but are the spoilers really necessary?

  • Pjm

    Yeah – who wants downer stories? Like that stupid Greek movie – I think it was a play originally – “Oedipus Rex”? Why can’t all movies be happy fun stories of beautiful sexy people doing fun things? Oh, right, because life doesn’t work that way. Bummer. Besides, that’s what we have TV for…

  • Glenn Kenny

    You know, I think Pedro at least waited until he had more than four features under his belt before he allowed the marketers to advertise “A Film By Almodovar.” Yeesh.

  • bobbyperu

    Jeff, Biutiful is indeed a difficult sit but not for the reasons you’re suggesting; it has nothing to do witih the grimness of the subject matter. The reason Biutiful is a difficult sit is because Inarritu stumbles with both the film’s narrative drive (there isn’t any) and pacing (molasses).

    Like you, I have also seen the film three times (once in a screening, twice in screener) and to me, it is by far the least accomplished of Inarritu’s movies. Comparatively, Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel all were memorable in structure, style, performance and story. No coincidence each was written by Arriaga and Biutiful wasn’t. For all of the emoting Bardem , not a single moment measures up to Adriana Barazza’s final scene in the police station near the end of Babel. Biutifuli just doesn’t provide those kinds of notes.

    Instead, it sprawls and meanders all over the place with devices/subplots (gay Asian businessmen, illegal workers), would-be complexities (the kind of obvious assertion that a petty hustler can be a good father and be redeemed), calculated symmetries (the immigrant mother needs a home; Uxbal needs a caretaker for his children) and very, very heavy symbolism. It never engages us. Bardem is typically great, but the movie doesn’t match him. Take him out of the film and there isn’t much else.

    I’m a big fan of Innaritu, but Biutiful is self-indulgent, too long and delivers no emotional payoff for all of the investment in requires of the audience.

  • MikeSchaeferSF

    @BobbyPeru: Funny, I had the opposite experience with “Biutiful” — I liked “Amores Perros”, found “21 Grams” wildly overrated (take away the jumbled chronolgy and there’s nothing there) and absolutely HATED”Babel”. And yet “Biutiful” worked for me *because* it was more conventional; we got to watch Bardem do his thing without a lot of trickery.

  • Jonathan Spuij

    I saw Incendies last week and was very impressed with the film. I felt it could win the Oscar but since I haven’t seen In A Better World yet I can’t really judge for sure. Biutiful was an impressive film, but I can’t really see it winning because people won’t like it enough, aside from Bardem. Does that make Susanne Bier again the current favorite in the category?

  • erniesouchak

    Thanks, Wells. This post has inspired me to avoid this movie, thereby saving 2+ hours of my time.

  • Semprini


    Long time reader. Your entry on Incendies prompted me to sign in.

    Incendies is a masterpiece and one of the most intelligent films on war, and especially Middle-East wars, which are indeed often “in the family”, ever made. Most films on war have not much to say about the nature of war and often indulge in sheer brutality shown in close-ups. Incendies does not do that, because it has a lot to say about the nature of war. In fact the most horrible scenes are either not shown on screen (eg, the rape scene) or seen from afar.

    The film never says that it takes place in Lebanon. In fact, none of the cities mentioned in Incendies exist in Lebanon. In this, the film differs from the play which mentioned Lebanon at the place where it was taking place. But Villeneuve in the film decided to take out all references to a real country. This was done on purpose in order to reach the power of the antique greek tragedies, the power of myths. In fact, many ideas of Incendies (the twins, the Odyssey, the relationship between the mother and the son) can be found in myths and tragedies from Sophoclus and in particular Oedipus and Antigone.

    The acting is superb (the mother is played by a fantastic actress), the structure of the movie, alternating the past and the present, the trials of the mother and the discoveries of the daughter, is very well thought out and implemented. Some dialogues are beautiful. Some shots of a city in war feel amazingly real.

    I too will never see Incendies a second time. But I will never forget it. I am relieved that such an intelligent and adult film has been nominated to the Oscars. Well deserved.

  • Bob Violence

    You know, I think Pedro at least waited until he had more than four features under his belt before he allowed the marketers to advertise “A Film By Almodovar.” Yeesh.

    Correct, he waited five. At least they both have something on Noe.

  • Edward

    Great trailer, makes me want to see the film.

  • rl

    The play was better.

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