A woman’s last wish leads to disturbing truth
A mystery, a melodrama, a prison film, and a love story, “Incendies’’ is foremost a scream of rage at a society destroyed by religion and by men. It opens with one of the most haunting images in recent movies — haunting because it’s already at the back of our nightmares — of a young Arab boy having his head shaved in preparation for holy war, the camera tracking in on his unflinching eye, a Radiohead song howling on the soundtrack. It’s a contest of wills to see who will blink first, him or us.
Where Denis Villeneuve’s film goes from there is unexpected, but in ambition and ferocity “Incendies’’ works mightily to match the power of that opening shot. It comes close enough to demand to be seen.
In modern-day Montreal, a notary public named Lebel (Rémy Girard) reads the will of his late secretary, a Middle Eastern immigrant named Nawal Marwan (Lubna Azabal), to her grown twin children, Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) and Simon (Maxim Gaudette). The daughter is told to find a brother she never knew existed and hand him a letter. The son is similarly instructed to find the father he presumed dead. He resists, eager to bury a tormented mother. His sister dives into her mission, eager to discover the source of the mother’s sorrows.
Jeanne’s journey — and ultimately Simon’s as well — takes us across the modern-day Middle East and into a murderous past still trying to lay claim to the living. The country is unspecified, but it’s obviously modeled on Lebanon in the 1970s, with right-wing Christian militants killing Muslim extremists and vice versa in an endlessly futile cycle of violence. Even that struggle has its roots in a patriarchy of soul-killing medievalism. When we first see Nawal in flashback, she has roused the fury of her small Christian village by falling for a Muslim refugee and carrying his child.
This is the first stop in her long march from social activism at an urban university to witnessing atrocities firsthand to becoming a warrior for peace to imprisonment, worse, and beyond. Each step bringing Jeanne closer to the truth also takes her nearer a mother who grows taller and more unrecognizable with each revelation. Such is the power and restraint of Villeneuve’s storytelling that we hang on every detail, absorbed in the smaller mystery of each scene and the larger mystery beyond it.
“Incendies’’ is, unexpectedly, a Canadian production — it was that country’s nominee for last year’s foreign language Oscar — and in the characters of Lebel and a placid Middle Eastern notary named Maddad (Allen Altman), the film has a core of cool, fair-minded probity. It’s not coincidental that Jeanne is a graduate student in higher mathematics, investigating the gray area where the logic of numbers gives way to the cosmic illogic of pure math. The plot arcs nearer and nearer to a shadowy right-wing torturer named Abou Tarek (Abdelghafour Elaaziz), and you can sense the modern-day characters struggle to keep their composure as they edge up to the abyss.
The movie is based on a play by the Lebanese-Canadian writer-director Wajdi Mouawad, and ultimately those stage roots reveal themselves in a plot twist that feels like one coincidence too far. Villeneuve has scrupulously managed to translate theater into cinema — most harrowingly in a sequence aboard a bus where Nawal comes face to face with the barbarousness of sectarian reprisal — but the film’s climactic reveal, its most unrelenting horror, leaves the audience doing math on their fingers rather than reeling in shock. It works beautifully as a metaphor for the insidious circularity of violence but as plot it’s far-fetched — more Dickens than denouement, more “Crash’’ than credible.
Yet Villeneuve is a gifted stylist who advances on his earlier features (and brilliant shorts like the 2009 prize-winner “Next Floor’’) with a confidence that’s a lot less show-offy than it could be, and he’s helped immeasurably by his two lead actresses, Azabal as the unbreakable Nawal and Désormeaux-Poulin as the daughter who, in the end, carries the heavier burden. “Incendies’’ often views the men of these women’s world through shots of their feet and hands, as if the camera were bowing its head in fear. It’s a story about finally gathering the courage to stare evil in the face and obliterating it with love.