Incendies is a film of considerable scope and ambition, an epic that follows young French Canadian siblings on a search for their mother’s Middle Eastern roots. Written and directed by Denis Villeneuve, from a play by Wajdi Mouawad, it’s a feast of sweeping hillsides and vast villages, high-end melodramatic set pieces and restrained, quieter moments.
Infused with mystery, tragedy and humor, serving as a genealogical study and Greek tragedy wrapped in one, it’s a fine achievement of bold, deeply felt cinema.
The picture commands your attention from its opening frames, commencing with the slow-motion and ominously dreamlike image of an anonymous Middle Eastern boy’s head being shaved by a gun-toting elder. Radiohead’s “Like Spinning Plates” plays.
From there, the picture gingerly segues into what’s, in simplest terms, a multigenerational detective story. After the death of Canadian immigrant Nawal Marwan (Lubna Azabal), her children (daughter Jeanne and son Simon) are shocked when the executor reveals letters, penned by their mother, which she wants delivered to their thought-to-be-dead father and a previously unknown brother.
Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) then embarks to her mother’s homeland, an unnamed country that strongly resembles Lebanon, to search for their long lost family. Once the film moves away from its dreary portrait of the unhappy siblings in industrialized Quebec, it hits its stride. Villeneuve smartly crosscuts Jeanne’s journey through the places her mother once tread with extensive, effective flashbacks to Nawal’s tumultuous young adulthood within those same locales, revealing a series of daunting, crushing tragedies befallen on the latter.
The personal narratives, given powerful presence by the soulful leads, are framed against an era-spanning portrait of a complex, strife-ridden locale. In telling Nawal’s story, Villeneuve presents a range of archetypal Mideast conflict experiences: An unflinching real-time terrorist attack on a bus, debris-strewn streets prowled by snipers, gruesome prisons and fat cat political leaders living like kings. In portraying them the filmmaker never indulges in the sort of grief-traveler indulgences one might expect, which would merely offer highbrow arthouse audiences the chance to ogle at some faraway misfortune.
Instead, Villeneuve frames the encompassing strife as a singular, major detail coloring his overarching depictions of a woman whose survival testifies to the defiance of impossible, dehumanizing odds, and a daughter who comes to finally understand the source of her mother’s ethereal stoicism.
The narrative contains a climactic secret that lands with devastating force, rivaling any revelation invented by the ancient Greeks, or M. Night Shyamalan. Yet, the identities of Jeanne and Simon’s long-lost brother and father are incidental to Incendies’ real story, in which two generations of a family confront a traumatic past to achieve a happier future.
The Upside: This is a film of impressive narrative and visual scope, boasting a vibrant, emotional story and two great performances.
The Downside: Certain elements stretch credibility, ever so slightly.
On the Side: Incendies was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar this year. It lost to the less affecting In a Better World.