Incendies spans great geographical and emotional distances as it tells the provocative and often shocking story of a woman who suffered unspeakable indignities in the midst of raging religious conflict between Lebanese Muslims and Lebanese Christians.
In the early going, the movie’s narrative feels fragmented and slightly confusing. Unless you know something about the Middle East, it may take awhile to figure out that much of the action is taking place in Lebanon.
This apparent lack of cohesion probably is necessary. Trust director Denis Villeneuve to clarify things as the movie progresses; Villeneuve’s fractured narrative has nothing to with artistic pretense and everything to do with allowing us to proceed at roughly the same pace as the movie’s characters. Incendies is a movie of discovery, hidden secrets and profoundly disturbing revelations.
Villeneuve, who adapted the movie from a play by Wajdi Mouawad, begins the story in a notary’s office in Montreal. Jeanne (Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin) and Simone (Maxim Gaudette) listen as the notary (Remy Girard) reads their mother’s will. Mom’s estate will be divided equally between Jeanne and Simone, who are twins.
Routine business after a death, but there's more: The twins' mother has made a puzzling additional request. She wants Jeanne to search for the father both children had presumed dead. For his part, Simone is charged with looking for a brother neither of the twins knew they had. This search becomes their real inheritance, a way to discover their history.
Separately and then together, the twins begin to learn about their mother’s life. When Narwal Marwan (Lubna Azabal) lived in Lebanon, the nation was wracked by strife: The violent conflict between Christians and Muslims left deep reservoirs of pain in its wake.
Simone initially resists his late mother’s request; Jeanne embraces it, traveling to Lebanon where she begins to learn about her mother’s life. Flashbacks show us Narwal’s years in Lebanon, and Azabal – in a stunning performance -- creates a portrait of woman swept up in a tide of war and hatred.
Villeneuve’s direction is vibrant and alert, and his depictions of warfare are harrowing, particularly an attack on a bus carrying Muslim civilians. It’s the kind of violence that can occur only when people put themselves beyond all feeling, except possibly hatred.
It might be better to do your thinking about Incendies after you let the movie settle. As you reflect back on the movie, you'll know that Villeneuve has shown us how past horror eventually insinuates itself into the present, how some people must survive without the balm of consolation and how two grown children must grapple with an impossibly difficult truth.