Watching movies for their literal value has become inherent in contemporary film culture. Plot-driven blockbusters and emotionally-sensitive indie flicks both rely on literal interpretation. Taking films at face value is often beneficial, as most movies are created for such an approach. However, Incendies is so literally upsetting and traumatizing for even the most removed viewers that it could be far more productive to watch the film as a metaphor.
Incendies is a French Canadian film about a Palestinian sister and brother who are sent by their mother's posthumous wishes to uncover a dark family history. The story itself becomes progressively and increasingly horrible. Without revealing the plot twists, it turns out that the family has a history of political and personal violence that cycles throughout generations.
Their mother's dying wishes initially seem demanding and unnecessary; the closure afforded at the end of the film seems more for her benefit than her children's. Metaphorically, though, the family can be seen as a representation of the unending perpetual conflict in Palestine, among and between religions and generations. In the children's recognition of their origins of violence and resentment in their family history (arguably interpretable as original sin) there exists a potential release from this very cycle.
Yeah, it sounds pretty corny without the movie's details (I really don't want to ruin the plot twists because they're so affecting). But the story is so upsetting that understanding it as a metaphor makes it both tolerable and universal. Film interpretation generally takes a literal form, with additional understandings of theme and structure, but metaphor serves a significant purpose in understanding Incendies. The film uses striking cinematography as a constant reminder of human capacity for both evil and beauty, and shows how the two are often more closely linked than we might like.