Incendies (aka Scorched)


" The search began at the opening of their mother’s will "


On the surface, it’s a story about the ravages of war, a woman who escaped her own torture and imprisonment, and her twin children who, only after their mother’s death, learn the truth of her existence and why she was unable to love them as a mother should. And so, while the critics celebrate the film’s portrayal of the brutality visited upon an unnamed country in the midst of war, at it’s center is a story about a woman rendered mute by the unthinkable yet finding the strength to provide her children the clues that will help them discover the unspeakable conditions of their birth, about the desperation that preceded their conception and the desperation that inevitably came to follow.

The film begins on the heels of their mother’s tortured death, impetus for the twins’ journey, the Notary reading the last will and testament that was given only to him. Her words, transmitted from beyond the grave, now read by another, brings a number of unexpected requests, not least of which is how she wished to be remembered, seeking eternal punishment for a promise that wasn’t kept.

Bury me without a coffin, naked and without prayers,
Face turned towards the ground, back turned against the world.
Gravestone and Epitaph:
No stone will be placed on my grave, and my name engraved nowhere.
No epitaph is deserved for those who fail to keep their word.

Adding to their confusion, each is given a sealed letter to deliver – the daughter, to her father; the son, to his brother – and only after completing this task will they receive the letter intended just for them. Only when this assignment is completed will she allow herself to be given a proper burial, after a long-kept secret is revealed and an ancient promise is finally kept.

When these envelopes have been handed to their addressees,
a letter will be given to you both.
When the silence is broken, and a promise is kept,
then a stone may be placed on my grave,
and my name engraved on it, in the light of day.

Our confusion, and theirs, is deepened by this assignment, particularly since the twins had always been told their father was already dead, killed in the war that tore their mother’s country apart; neither did they know they had a brother. Revelations pointing to the unspoken life the mother had before and of which she dared not speak. Secrets only half revealed but which continued their haunting even after her life was taken and her body was already dead. The Notary who had grown close to the woman tries to provide some words of comfort, but his effort can only come across as a feeble defense to the children mystified by their mother’s requests: "I know this is quite unusual, but you mother was not crazy."

Such is the beginning of their journey instigated by the will of their mother, a will made more inscrutable by the words that emerge from beyond the grave.

The Daughter's Mother

Although they’re twins, but perhaps because they’re not identical, their reactions will be different. The son wants a normal burial for the mother whose life had spiraled out of control, her last request seen as a measure of the bad memories he’d rather put to rest. His sister, on the other hand, is drawn into the mystery, one that’s deepened by the faded picture provided by the Notary, the only clue she has for finding the father she thought was dead. In the portrait’s background is writing upon the wall that identifies where it was taken years before her birth, gesturing towards a history that’s remained untold: a prison made notorious during the war that ripped her mother’s homeland to shreds, a place where prisoners languished, hidden in the dark and tortured to the edge of death.

It’s in this way that the her life comes to be interrupted, no longer able to keep her job at the university. But even though her stay in academia is forcibly terminated, her facility with numbers leaves her well prepared, for she’s already been initiated into the kind of mysteries signaled by the professor for whom she had worked.

Mathematics, as you have learned thus far, has aimed to achieve a stringent response and solution starting with strict and definitive problems. Now, you enter an entirely different adventure. The subject will be intractable problems that  always lead to other problems, just as intractable. People around you will repeatedly say that your struggles are in vain. You’ll have no argument to defend yourself, for the work will be exhausting and complex.
Welcome to pure mathematics, the land of loneliness.

Her training in this lonely land will serve her well as she returns to her mother’s country, seeking to discover what she was unable to tell. Traveling back in time to trace an itinerary leading back to the birth of herself and her brother, borne by a refugee fleeing the ravages of war. As the film unfolds, we’ll witness both women, in different times, as if the daughter’s courage was bringing her mother’s untold story to light. As if, by virtue of the lapse of time, the younger redeems what was had been too terrible for the mother to bear.

Her Forbidden Love

Almost immediately, we are plunged into the terror with which the mother’s story began, even as the daughter traces her life in reverse: her love was forbidden, trembling under the threat of death. Her family disapproved of the man she loved, an enemy of her people. Were it not for another’s intervention, she would surely have been killed by those seeking to protect their honor against disgrace.

Her lover was not so lucky, a bullet shot through his head. (The man the twins had thought was their father.) And so, even before the mother’s life had truly begun, she’d been turned into a widow carrying an unborn child. The boy would be carried to term, only to be given away for adoption, just as she too would be banished, far from disapproving eyes. As she departed, she’d make a promise to find him, no matter what, to reclaim what others worked so hard to take away. To aid in that task, the boy was marked so she could recognize him, a tattoo upon his heel, as if he were destined to become Achilles, the greatest warrior that roamed the face of the earth.

Before she could complete her education, a war broke out, changing her country’s landscape forever. Her homeland ripped in two, one side warring against the other. Afraid for the fate of her son, she’d go looking for him, yearning to keep her promise, hoping he wasn’t already dead. So when she found the charred remains of the orphanage that housed him, all faith was lost, no longer believing peace could be achieved through books and words. For life had taught her an awful lesson, one she sought to impose on the one responsible for the fate of her son. Denied the right of motherhood, her sole focus had come to be revenge.

Recruited for War

Little could she have known the boy had survived the carnage, only to be recruited for the business of war. He too had looked for her, but his failure only served to fortify the blood that boiled within his veins. The very nature of his birth was preparation for violence, relinquished by his mother then bombed out of his orphan home: knowing only the sound of torment and the barrage of mortars and guns. A bastard child born of an illicit love, his father killed in revenge.

It’s in this way that mother and son unknowingly came to inhabit opposite sides of a war, she as an undercover assassin, he a guerilla killing anything that moved. She was the perfect weapon in the fight against her enemy, worming her way into his home by teaching his child languages that were not their own. And when she finally received the order, she killed the one responsible for the fate of her son, letting loose with all the fury of her pent up rage.

She knew she would be caught, for an assassination that intimate cannot be hidden, but her capture didn’t matter. All she had cared about was avenging what had been denied. Which explains the picture her daughter now carried, evidence of the life that preceded her own: from her mother’s village, and the place from which she had been evicted, to the prison where her captors sought to break her spirit. Years after the war, she’d still be known as The Woman Who Sings.

Her singing had so infuriated her captors they sent for a specialist trained in the art of torture. And as her daughter learns (and despite being warned that some things are better left forgotten), he succeeded in his task, raping her repeatedly, his seed growing in her womb. She was then forced to deliver his progeny as a sign of her defeat, and a measure of her brokenness and shame.

Calling her brother

The twin calls her brother, now an ocean away, telling him what she’s discovered, the truth their mother dared not tell. Not only of her imprisonment and torture, but of the conception forced upon her by a man who used sex as a weapon of war. And yet, there’s the hint of a silver lining in this newfound misery: she’s found the name of the nurse who helped her mother in the hellhole of that prison, the one who assisted her in childbirth. And she’s still alive.

Her twin brother (and the Notary) come to meet her and they go to visit the nurse. Through the work of the translator, they tell the nurse they’re seeking information about their mother, The Woman Who Sings, and about the child she helped deliver. The old woman, now frail with age, trembles with joy upon hearing who they are, for standing before her are the two she kept as her own until their mother was released. For she didn’t give birth to one child when imprisoned. Instead, there were two.

This bombshell is not the first to hit the twins, neither will it be the last. For the nurse’s joy reverses the myth their mother had so carefully maintained about the nature of their birth. They were not conceived by love but through the violence of torturer; their father was not their mother’s beloved but a man who raped her. With the nurse’s revelation, their most basic assumptions have been destroyed; their very existence evidence not of love but it’s opposite: anger and hate.

Because no information about the torturer (their father) can be found, they decide to find what happened to the child the mother was forced to relinquish, instead. No definitive records can be found, so they decide upon a meeting with the warlord responsible for destroying the orphanage that housed the boy: one brother sent to learn about the fate of the other. And it’s this man-of-war who reveals the secret of the other brother’s life: Recruited into the war, he became an expert marksman, yet remained intent on finding his mother. When that failed, his commitment to battle became more intense, hoping to make a name for himself so as to earn his mother’s pride and respect. But despite his skill he was captured by the forces of battle, only to be trained in its darkest secrets, becoming the kind of specialist who would be recruited for political prisoners like The Woman Who Sings.

The Awful Truth

After he returns with what he’s learned, his sister finds him in a daze, feverish and in a catatonic state. When she asks what’s wrong, all he can do is mumble some nonsense about numbers, as if faced with an intractable problem that’s impossible to solve.

One plus one, that makes two.
One plus one makes two, it can’t be one.
One plus one … can it really make one?

When the truth to which he refers finally begins to dawn on her, she’ll crumble. For this is not the kind of discovery for which they had embarked. They were meant to find two, not one: her father and his brother. Upon this realization, the single reward held out as the silver lining of their travels – reuniting with their long-lost brother – is suddenly dashed, leaving the twins no longer knowing what to do or even how to console the other.

But this secret, the mother already knew. For it’s only by virtue of distance, of time and travel to another country, that allowed her secret to be unveiled, shedding light on the madness that enveloped her and the ambivalence about the twins to whom she’d given birth. Only now, after this discovery, do the words with which their journey began make sense. For it’s only after a trauma’s been uncovered that any life can had, much less called one’s own.

When the silence is broken, and a promise is kept,
then a stone may be placed on my grave,
and my name engraved on it, in the light of day.

Only in retrospect will the daughter recognize the moment her mother had gone quiet and had begun to die, the moment when she discovered the truth of her life and the nature of her twin’s inheritance. For one day, sitting at the edge of the pool, she saw the tell-tale marks on a naked heel … but when she raised her eyes to greet her son, now grown, she recognized a different face, instead.

Letters from the Mother

The letters will finally find their recipient, ironically in the very city which the twins had called their home. Together, they deliver them, as was the dying wish of their mother, meeting the two men that had defined her life. One letter to their father, the other for their brother, her beloved son. In the letter to the father, he will read the following words:

I am trembling as I write this.
I recognized you, although you didn’t recognize me.
It’s a wonderful miracle: I’m your [prisoner] number 72.
This letter will be delivered by our children.
You will not recognize them because they are beautiful,
but they know who you are.
Through them, I want to tell you: you’re still alive.
But soon you’ll be quiet, I know.
Because everyone is silent before the truth.
Signed: the whore of [cell] 72.

And in the other, intended for her long lost child:

I am speaking to the son, not the torturer.
Whatever happens, I will always love you.
That’s the promise that I made to you at your birth, my son.
Whatever happens, I will always love you.
I’ve searched for you my whole life, and then I found you.
You could not recognize me; you have a tattoo on your right heel.
I saw it and I recognized you, and I found you beautiful.
I breathe to you all the sweetness of the world, my love.
Console yourself because nothing is more beautiful than being together.
You were born of love. Your brother and sister were also born of love.
Nothing is more beautiful than to be together.
Your mother … prisoner number 72.

Two letters. Two sentiments impossibly tied together. Such was the mother’s curse and the twin’s unspoken inheritance, hidden in silence because a promise had not been kept.

A tombstone, finally engraved

As he stands over her grave, now marked and able to face the light of day, the twins finally hear the words of their mother, the final letter held in secret until their task had been completed. That was her dying wish.

My loves, where does your story begin?
At your birth? – Then it starts in horror.
At the birth of your father? – Then it begins with a story of a great love.
I say that your story begins with a promise that breaks the thread of anger.
Thanks to you, it’s a promise I’ve finally managed to keep.
The thread is broken. And I can finally take the time to rock you,
and softly sing a lullaby to comfort you.
Nothing is more beautiful than to be together.
I love you,
Your mother.

The thread of anger finally broken, the intractable problem dissolved and a promise finally kept. The land of loneliness triumphant over the dark arc that was their inheritance: a daughter’s tenacity in the face of her mother’s terror and a son’s ability to push aside his desire to bury the past, having only wanted to bring his sister back from that godforsaken country. But both were implicated in the very condition defining their birth, and both bore the burden of bringing it to light. And while what they found may differ from the promise children dream of when they imagine their beginnings, the truth now revealed finally allows their mother peace of mind. And the ability to rest.


~ by mistified on May 17, 2011.

6 Responses to “Incendies (aka Scorched)”

  1. My question is this. How come the torturer who was the soon seemed to be the same age in jail as he was at the swimming pool 25 or 30 years later

    • That’s a great question! I can think of two possible answers:

      1. The encounter by the swimming pool didn’t actually happen. Instead, given the symbolism of water (emotions, the unconscious), it’s a dramatization of an insight: only after she crosses the waters does she makes a connection – an “aha” moment – when she’s finally able to put one and one together. He probably looks the same age because that’s the only memory she has of him.

      2. The relation between mother and child need not be taken literally. Take, for example, the exclamation “I’ve created a monster!” which suggests procreation but not biological birth. In this sense, children can be a metaphor for the product (or consequence) of a relationship. In other words, Nawal Marwan’s forbidden love gives “birth” to the torturer.

  2. Just watched this amazin film and thereafter came across your amazin write up of it. Nice work πŸ™‚ I’ll go ahead and browse the rest of your site.

  3. I’ve been looking for a contemporary play to teach that would pair nicely with some Greek drama. Obviously, it’s difficult to find a modern story that has the scope of a Greek tragedy. I read about “Scorched” today, and found your blog which offers a concise retelling of the plot. So…I ordered the script. Thanks for your thoughtful entry.

  4. Excellent description of the story!

  5. I loved your review post-watch!

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