Denis Villeneuve’s Incendies is the most intense film I’ve seen all year. It’s also one of the most compelling—and, in its own way, one of the most entertaining. Though based on a play by Wajdi Mouawad that was a series of monologues, the film is virtually the antithesis of a stage work. Its initial set-up with notary Jean Lebel (Remy Girard) qualifies as theatrical, some of the dialogue—especially, the reading of the letters—has a certain theatrical air, and the structure of the story is that of the play. But the film overall is cinema through and through.
The brilliance of Incendies lies in its fragmented presentation of the story as a mystery. This provides the film with that rarest of qualities—the sense of wanting to know what happens next. Even if you guess the solution—and I admit I did—it really doesn’t matter. The way the story moves back and forth between the present and the slowly-revealed past keeps the certainty at bay. You still want to know how it turns out. And guessing its mystery does nothing to diminish the power of the story. I suspect it may be even more powerful on a second viewing.
Following the film’s haunting introduction—set to Radiohead’s “You and Whose Army?”—showing a child in an unidentified Middle East country having his head shaved before to being forced into military service. This sets the tone—and the song will recur on the soundtrack—but the story proper begins much later in Montreal where twins Simon (Maxim Gaudette) and Jeanne Marwan (Mélissa Désormeaux) are being apprised of the contents of their late mother’s will by Lebel. It’s hardly a straightforward document, since it requires Jeanne to find a father they thought was dead and Simon to find a brother they never knew existed, so that they may each deliver a letter. The task—which requires returning to their mother Nawal’s (Lubna Azabel) homeland (apparently Lebanon, but never named)—is much more than was bargained for. It’s as much a journey to find the reality of their mother and themselves.
From here, the film moves back and forth between the search and Nawal’s life in the past as the complexity of their mother unfolds. This is ultimately much more than a device. Even though the film is clearly an indictment of war grounded in religion and how religious belief is used to excuse completely arbitrary hatred, the story has more on its mind than this. It also explores how little we know of our parents’ lives prior to a certain point, and consequently how little we probably know about ourselves. The pointlessness and cruelty of religious persecution is, however, very central to the film. And it’s dealt with in perhaps the most unusual way I’ve ever seen, since the religions of two of the film’s main characters—I won’t say who—change (sometimes more than once) over the course of the film, depending entirely on circumstances.
Probably the most visceral and shattering scene in a movie filled with such scenes is one involving what happens to a busload of Muslims—with Nawal, the sole Christian, whose efforts to help prove fruitless—during a military action between rival religious factions. It’s chilling, disturbing, yet amazingly non-exploitative, which may just be why it’s so powerful. That it’s housed in a story that is finally about the importance of forgiveness-no-matter-what makes it that much more so.
I’m going to say nothing more about the plot—that should be left to the film—but I do want to note that the performances are quite wonderful, but none matches the intensity of Lubna Azabal. And yet Azabal’s is not a showy performance in the least, offering very few big moments and internalizing its intensity at every turn. There’s nothing of the Oscar-bait we’re so often served in what are commonly thought of as great acting. This is something that completely transcends such. This is the goods. And so is the film, which is a must-see. Rated R for some strong violence and language.