Rates: * * * 1/2
Why Did I Watch It? Recommended by my friend Lola.
After her death, a middle aged Canadian woman, Nawal, springs a surprise on her children, Jeanne and Simon; she bequeaths them two letters, and a task. The letters are for their brother, who they didn’t know existed, and their father, who they thought had died before they were born. Their job is to find both, and deliver these final messages.
Nawal had been a refugee from an unnamed middle eastern country, suggested to be Lebanon, and the twins journey there to try and unravel the mystery. As they investigate their mother’s roots, they realise how little they knew about her. We also see the mother’s own life story, via extended flashbacks. It’s a neat narrative trick; you can see the events of decades before, and their echoes in the present day, instanteously.
Nawal’s story is harrowing. Her first child, the missing brother, was removed from her as an infant, as he was born out of wedlock. Later, she runs away and begins an odyssey too find him, just as civil war erupts between the country’s Christians and Muslims. Nawal will witness razed villages, murdered civilians, and barely survive a busload of women who are burned alive (in a different movie, the most harrowing scene). Her investigation seems to confirm that her son has been killed, which radicalises her; out for revenge, she joins a Christian militia and assassinates a Muslim political leader, which lands her in a jail. There, she endures relentless beatings and torture, and is repeatedly raped. Her spirit remains unbroken though, and she becomes an urban legend: ‘The Woman Who Sings’.
This is tough stuff, and delivered unflinchingly by director Denis Villeneuve. A character wandering through a war-shattered no man’s land is practically a genre in itself – recent examples include ‘The Painted Bird’, ‘Mr Jones’, even ‘1917’, there are many others – but the execution here is powerful, aided by a location shoot on the stark desert plains of Jordan. It accurately depicts what happens when humanity’s worst instincts are loosed, and how they corrupt and destory environments and people.
As Nawal’s children investigate from the present day, they realise they are not at a safe distance from these events. There is a twist towards the end of the film, that reframes their lives, their mother’s, and brings them directly in contact with the horrors of this old conflict. And while this is shocking, genuinely, and lands with a lot of impact, Villeneuve cannot resist adding an ADDITIONAL layer; one horrifying relevation leads to a second one, even worse than the first. For me, this was unncessary; a bit too clever-clever, in a way that undermined, slightly, the rest. Also: this second twist relies on a coincidence that is extremely unlikely, in a way the previous plot developments were not.
This does not derail the remainder, which demonstrates strong film making craft, and tells a moving, necessarily horrifying, story. And the film’s ultimate message, about the difficulty of breaking the cycles of violence that cause conflict to perpetuate, is important.