Canada France (130 mi) 2010 d: Denis Villeneuve
One of the more harrowing stories seen in quite awhile, embellished with superb storytelling, unraveling an odyssey so fascinating and intensely personal that even the display of chapter headings is riveting, as it knowingly leads the viewer into such fertile, unchartered territory. Adapted by the director from a play written by Lebanese-Canadian playwright Wajdi Mouawad who fled from Lebanon to France at the age of 8, which is a reworking of Greek tragedy superimposed with hyper-realistic scenes taken from the Lebanese Civil War of the 1970’s and 80’s that left 250,000 civilians dead, 350,000 displaced, and more than a million to flee the country, where a majority of its original inhabitants continue to live elsewhere, retelling history through the personalized lens of children discovering their own mother’s legacy after her death. Told out of sequence through a series of haunting flashbacks, each delves deeper into the mysterious unknown of their mother’s life. Powerfully written, brilliantly edited, where the simultaneous present mixed with the past time schemes are blended together perfectly using unforgettable onsite locations that are gorgeously photographed by André Turpin, where the ensemble acting, especially by the women involved, is superb, and where Grégoire Hetzel’s original musical score recalls Beethoven and Mahler, especially in the solemn expression of anguish and lament. The intensity of the film is unwavering, where much of the play’s dialogue has been replaced by sequences of staggering devastation. Opening with a stunning scene set in slo-mo to the angry whisper of Radiohead’s You And Who's Army? - Radiohead (YouTube 3:14), young boys with grim faces are getting their heads shaved as they are being prepared for war, a foreshadowing of the dire events that lie ahead.
The mood is quickly shifted to the present, where an Arab-born Canadian brother and sister, Simon (Maxim Gaudette) and Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin), sit in a notary’s office (Rémy Girard) in Montreal and hear the strangely unique terms of their mother’s will, handing each letters to deliver to family members they never knew existed, Simon to an unknown brother and Jeanne to the father she understood was dead, as only in this way will the mother unearth the buried family secrets and fulfill a lifelong promise to break the continuing cycle of violence and regret. Simon, something of a self-centered grouch throughout, is disgusted by the whole ordeal and finds it a waste of time, the ravings of an embarrassing and unstable mother who never “acted” normal, while the more inquisitive Jeanne immediately sets out for the Middle East in search of her mother’s home town. During her inquiry, her mother’s life of Nawal (Lubna Azabal) as a young girl materializes before our eyes, where her pregnancy with a Muslim is a source of shame to the family, one that requires drastic measures and her exile from the region, but only after she leaves her orphaned baby behind after birth. But years later, she vows to reunite with that lost child, searching for him in a Southern region that has succumbed to annihilation and war, where empty burnt out buildings are still smoldering. As a Christian, she is easily allowed passage back into the troubled region, as there is a logjam of families frantically waiting at a checkpoint trying to get out. What she discovers, however, are Christians massacring Muslims, where the cross around her neck is the only thing that saves her on a bus filled with Muslim women who are all killed on the spot by a roving gang of Christian nationalists before being set on fire, a horribly brutal atrocity she is forced to feebly witness that rocks her to the very core. Interestingly, after all this time, when Jeanne finds her mother’s village, she is bluntly told by the women elders that she is not welcome there, as they are still teeming with resentment, indicating she may be searching for her father, but she knows nothing about her mother.
In fact, no truer words are spoken anywhere in the film, as Nawal developed an intense hatred for the Christian nationalists, where murder and massacres are routinely attributed to the name of Christianity, including infamous refugee camp massacres, eventually being sent to prison for aiding the Muslim subversives, becoming part of a radical resistance movement. As a French-speaking Canadian, Jeanne is way over her head when she begins to uncover even the tiniest pieces of reality, calling her recalcitrant brother to join her, as this was beyond her capacity to comprehend. And like Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the further they inquire into this unspeakable realm, the less they understand about their mother, as she was an active participant in the civil war, the consequences of which have only grown immeasurably over time, leaving her family involved, with the siblings no closer to finding what happened to the missing family members, who may have perished somewhere along the way. Like good investigative journalism, the director unleashes only bits and pieces at a time, providing the full ramifications at each stage, where the audience, through flashbacks, have a clearer picture of the kind of desperate life Nawal lived, constantly besieged by forces that were greater than her, but refusing to weaken her resolve, still desperately searching for her missing son, showing no signs of the eccentric portrait held by her family in Montreal, who themselves are getting a taste of the mosaic of ethnic conflicts in the region. The Radiohead song is chillingly utilized several times in the film, each time adding surprising depth and coherency, where there’s a boiling rage still simmering just under the surface, where the director has the audience by the throat and never for a second loosens his grip on the build up of tension and suspense. There is never any indication that this originated from a play, as the powerful tone of authenticity feels like it’s based on a real life experience. Both Lubna Azabal and Désormeaux-Poulin match the elevated intensity with their outstanding performances, but it’s the director who amazingly pulls together all the mysterious elements, sad and heartbreaking, plunging headfirst into this complex and dense material yet achieving balance, with nothing less than spectacular results.