Incendies is one of the best modern films I’ve seen over the last several years. Incorporating a lot of technique that I frequently find corny and easily avoidable – voiceover and flashback in particular – it’s so unbelievably successful, so dramatic, and so heartbreaking, that any Oldboy comparisons should look like fanboy crocodile tears and nothing more to the trained eye and ear.
Denis Villeneuve is one of Canada’s foremost filmmakers, though he’s much less celebrated than a David Cronenberg or Atom Egoyan. His 2000 film Maelstrom left indelible impression on me the year it came out.
Incendies is sprawling and violent, but also delicate and poignant. Twin brother and sisters – Jeanne (Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin) and Simon (Maxim Gaudette) – are sent on a journey by their since-deceased mother to the Middle East to find their family history. What ensues is an enthralling mix of religious and sexual persecution and a mother’s desperate, conflicted attempt at survival and love (that sounds like a really terribly written DVD back cover, doesn’t it?).
Incendies is great for several reasons. Two are obvious. The performances are staggering and the script is flawless. But it’s Villeneuve’s technique – a textbook example of how to fluidly move between past and present, expressive camera movements and compositions – that makes Incendies sing.
Villeneuve’s strategy is to not demarcate his movements through time too specifically, leaving us to catch up with the story as it’s happening. There’s no huge time/location stamp that lingers as we move through time. Instead we’re frequently jolted around – in the same way that that Jeanne and Simon’s mother Nawal (Lubna Azabal) was also jolted around in her various quests.
Check out this sequence below to see some of Azabal’s performance and also Villeneuve’s style: three cuts in 1:20 – making for a long ASL – and a production design that makes the figure blend in with the landscape/ruins:
Here’s another great clip. The first cut comes at 0:36 (!), but Villeneuve’s dancing camera, motivated by the various movements – people walking, a passing photograph – makes it feel like there’s a hell of a lot more editing than there actually is.
Incendies is a film – not unlike There Will Be Blood – that I’d love to go camera setup-by-camera setup on, but it’s more worth the individual watch. Check it out.
We Have a Pope
Movies have mined the psychoanalyst-personage relationship for years. Recent films like Analyze This and The King’s Speech put a mob boss and the king of Britain, respectively, in the leather chair. Nanni Moretti’s dramatic comedy, We Have a Pope (an ironic title, which is perhaps intended to be interrogative rather than declarative – Do We Have a Pope?), tries to one-up all previous patients.
The Cardinals have gathered at the Vatican. Black smoke pouring from its rooftop indicates to the faithful thousands that a new pope has not yet been chosen. Within its gilded doors the secret balloting commences, but a consensus cannot be reached until, seemingly at random, an underdog is chosen. Melville (the great Michel Piccoli) is to be the new leader of the Catholic Church. Black smoke turns to white. The bells toll. The crowd roars. And Melville freaks out.
The papal bureaucracy sends for a therapist, Brezzi (Nanni Moretti), but his tactics fail. Unable to cope with the pressure, Melville escapes into the surrounding city to find himself. At the insistence of the famously secretive institution, Brezzi is forced to stay within the Vatican’s walls until the pope’s identity has been made public.
Ostensibly a film about role reversals, We Have a Pope takes Melville and Brezzi and swaps them. Melville roams the streets as a civilian, even meeting with Brezzi’s ex-wife, also a psychoanalyst, and claiming to be an actor. Meanwhile, Brezzi becomes a sort of father figure at the Vatican, going as far as to arrange a round-robin volleyball tournament.
Much of the humor of the film is derived from putting the Cardinals in real-world situations: playing sports, petty arguments, clapping along to music, smoking a cigarette, gambling. Here, Moretti succeeds. The comedy, not to mention the lavish set design and gorgeous cinematography, elevates the first two acts of a film that falters in its third, when it skates around some bigger questions.
Far from scathing, We Have a Pope still focuses its energies on small critiques. Psychoanalysis and religion, it seems to say, aren’t too far apart from one another. The former is predictable and reaching: the Freudian assertion that all roads lead to the mother, the bible as a blueprint for depression. The latter is ironclad and clandestine: the Vatican as a jail for Brezzi, the tight-lipped misdirection of the press.
The critique extends further. Unlike a King’s Speech, psychoanalysis is rendered essentially useless. Life outside of the walls and confines of the Vatican may in fact be more fulfilling than that within.
Still, Moretti’s film is not a dark take on the ineffectiveness of institutions. While both Brezzi’s and Melville’s chosen paths may pale in comparison to the simplicity and freewheeling joy of a volleyball game or a Chekhov performance (read: “real life”), neither man, and thus neither body that he stands for, is entirely denigrated. In fact, We Have a Pope is more about the need to live in a given moment and for one’s self – but with other people – than it is about a search for meaning within the context of a life’s calling.
This idea is best embodied in the aforementioned volleyball competition and Chekhov play. To break the tedium of daily Vatican life, Brezzi organizes a volleyball tournament, divided by region (Oceania has only three members, so they play shorthanded). The sequence that follows is one of the more memorable in the film – fully garbed Cardinals hitting the dirt in slow-motion, nuns celebrating, Brezzi front and center with his whistle, coordinating. It’s funny and poignant all at once – a brief reprieve from the toils of the job. Within this scene Moretti hides a quick line of dialogue, spoken to his therapist by one of the Cardinals. “Hell is desolate,” says the Cardinal. It’s very probably Moretti’s thesis for the film. Brezzi is not a believer, but he’s not in danger of the fires of damnation. Why? Well, simply put, because, despite his arrogance, he’s a good guy. Hell is desolate because people are intrinsically good, the film seems to posit. Whether or not this renders religion ineffectual is a point that Moretti skirts.
Melville, for his part, attends a Chekhov performance, vicariously accomplishing a life’s goal. Chekhov is the playwright who told us that if a gun is introduced into the story it must be fired. Use your props and fulfill your promises, he says. For all of the Chekhov-ian interplay, it’d be easy to say that Moretti refuses this simple rule. We Have a Pope is sometimes too light for its own good. It asks questions but answers few, critiques but pulls punches, introduces that loaded gun, but never fires it. Or it could be that Moretti is well aware of the gun he holds and finds his often mocked targets too easy, preferring to settle for dramatic farce rather than biting satire.