We Bought a Zoo
A widowed father played by Matt Damon moves to the South Californian country and purchases a zoo with his family
On Film4: 6 Sep 6:25PM
Oscar-nominated drama about a twin brother and sister who set out to unravel a family mystery, which draws them into a history of conflict and strife in an unnamed Middle Eastern country
Denis Villeneuve's film opens with a striking prologue: a vision of a rich yet dry, mountainous landscape, which recedes to reveal a contrastingly bleak, though no less absorbing, tableau, of a spartan, stone-walled shell of a building overlooking the idyllic countryside. Inside it, a group of young boys, simply dressed, are having their heads shaved in what appears to be an initiatory rite. The camera finally alights on one innocent-looking child with a particularly intense gaze, then homes in on the three seemingly innocuous dots he has tattooed on his heel (which will later take on vital significance to the film's plot). Breathtakingly photographed by Andre Turpin, its slow-mo, dreamlike quality is enhanced by the distant strains of Radiohead's 'You And Whose Army?' which provides the soundtrack, and it's one of the most arresting opening sequences of a film I can remember seeing in years.
It sets the bar improbably high for the rest of the film, a weighty, intricate inter-generational saga which unsurpirisingly struggles to extend the impressionistic power (though not the intensity) of its opening across its two hour-plus running time. Set in an anonymous Middle Eastern country which resembles Lebanon in all but name, Canadian director Villeneuve's impressive drama, adapted from a play by Lebanese writer Wajdi Mouawad, strives to make emotional sense of decades of civil war through the prism of one family's complex emotional (and literal) DNA.
When Nawal (Lubna Azabal), an expatriate living in Canada and mother to adult twins Jeanne and Simon, dies suddenly, she leaves the pair two sealed envelopes and an instruction that they be delivered to their father (who they had previously been led to believe was dead) and an older brother who they never knew existed. This quest takes Jeanne and Simon far from their drizzly Quebec neighbourhood to their mother's childhood home in the Middle East, where Nawal's painful personal narrative and professional recruitment by the Muslim paramilitary is sketched by lengthy flashback sequences, as well as the twins' own detective work.
Through Nawal's experiences, the film paints a compelling portrait of incitement to political radicalism, as well as the scorching scars of civil war, as suggested by the title; and it's refreshing to see a film that approaches Lebanon's complex political past not through straight military or historical drama, but by using family as allegory, and focussing primarily on its impact on mother and daughter. If that sounds abstract or academic, Incendies certainly feels it at times, and finally it only works if viewed as such - not least because the eleventh hour revelation on which the film hinges (a twist tragic enough to make Oedipus count his lucky stars) would be pretty hard to swallow otherwise.
A beautifully filmed and movingly performed drama which explores how personal motives breed political radicalism, Incendies is occasionally - but not fatally - stymied by its clever-clever narrative contrivance
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