Film Review: Incendies

Exceptional drama about French-Canadian brother/sister twins on a mission to the Middle East to unravel a family mystery engages on every front.

Denis Villeneuve's Incendies (meaning “fires”) is that all-too-rare film experience that commands attention at every twisty story turn and delivers an extraordinary ending that rewards that attention as the loose ends explode into a collective “Wow!” While originally a work for the stage, the film, which takes place largely in several unidentified Middle Eastern territories (Jordan provided the locations), never feels claustrophobic or “opened up” for film.

Even the work’s insistence not to specify actual countries serves the greater purpose of a broader theme: the utter senselessness and tragedy of the unending violence, suffering, atrocities and deaths that self-righteous warring religious and political factions impose upon the region (or anywhere, for that matter). Whether to blame Jews, Muslims, Arabs, Palestinians or power/money-hungry tyrants is beside the point. But Incendies is so much more than a “message” film; it is outstanding, high-quality entertainment that should ring up impressive art-house numbers.

Villeneuve's drama delivers a brief prologue montage of Middle East violence but really kicks off in a Montreal law office where notary Lebel (Rémy Girard) informs the stunned twins Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux Poulin) and Simon Marwan (Maxim Gaudette), both fully assimilated Canadians, that their mother Nawal’s will charges them with finding the father they believed dead and the brother they never knew existed. Each twin is handed an envelope that Nawal (Lubna Azabal) prepared for an investigation to begin in her Middle East homeland.

In addition to an unknown father and brother, the mystery might also explain Nawal’s sudden withdrawal during the final stage of her life. While the somewhat adrift Simon is cool to this unexpected challenge, Jeanne, a gifted math teaching assistant, embraces it and goes to the Middle East to explore her family tree.

Jeanne’s journey leads to discoveries that her mother experienced a young pregnancy and had to give up her baby. Jeanne begins by following this thread, which leads to revelations of terrible violence, partisan fighting among Muslims, Christians, extremists and nationalists, and the massacre and torture of innocents.

Eventually, Simon, loyal to his sister, joins her and together they learn that their mother was very different from the person they thought they knew. They piece together her amazing story of courage, tragedy, impossible suffering as a political prisoner and rape victim, her struggle for an education and her miraculous escape to Montreal.

The film skillfully moves back and forth (and back again) in time, introducing episodes with relevant titles. As the twins follow clues, the present recedes while scenes of Nawal’s difficult life deliver revelatory details, including seemingly routine relaxation breaks at a public Montreal pool.

The Jordan location shooting provides ample atmosphere, whether via windswept landscapes of hills and stone or of teeming Arab cities. Even Grégoire Hetzel’s bewitching score and the persistent whir of loud breezes that seem to want to share clues are critical to the mysterious, violent world that emerges. But it’s that ending that rivets and makes personal the all-too-familiar headlines of horror in the world’s hot spots.