Reprinted from April 8 coverage of Philadelphia CineFest.
A brother and sister, twins in Montreal, are reading their mother's last will and testament. The news is jolting: Simon (Maxim Gaudette) and Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) have a sibling in their mother's Middle East homeland they did not know existed. And their father, whom the pair believed long dead, is apparently alive.
So begins the epic journey that is Incendies, Denis Villeneuve's extraordinary exploration of the juncture where family history, religious identity, and roiling politics collide.
Incendies, a 2011 foreign-language Oscar nominee, is a deftly constructed and beautifully realized adaptation of Scorched, a play by Wajdi Mouawad (staged at the Wilma Theater in 2009). Villeneuve toggles back and forth between the present, when Jeanne embarks on a trip to find her unknown brother and father, and a time 30-odd years earlier. This is the story of her mother, Nawal (an amazing Lubna Azabal, from Paradise Now), a beautiful woman whose life was torn apart when she became pregnant out of wedlock and witnessed the killing of her lover, barely escaping death herself.
Forced to give up the child and flee, Nawal becomes caught in the bloody conflict between Christian militants and Muslims. (Although it is set in a fictitious country, these chapters of Incendies clearly transpire during the Lebanese civil war of the 1970s.) Simon, raging and reluctant to honor his deceased mother's unusual wishes - she had left sealed envelopes for the twins to deliver to their father and brother - eventually joins Jeanne. Their discoveries are hard won, but revelatory.
Incendies - which is about the secrets we inherit, and how the past shapes the present and future - reverberates with the power and passion of Greek tragedy. If the ending seems hard to swallow (and also somewhat ill-executed), the performances that have preceded it, and the scenes of absolute terror and strife and sadness, are utterly compelling and true.