Without explanation, the opening scene of Incendies depicts a group of young boys, somewhere in the Middle East, having their heads roughly shaved, as if in preparation for battle. But after one boy stares intently into the camera, the film abruptly cuts away to its real starting point, in which twins in Montreal are being read their mother's will.
Thus does Denis Villeneuve's drama jump around in place and time, offering viewers scattered jigsaw pieces that will indeed snap into a whole. The will provides the frame: Nawal Marwan tasks her two grown children with finding both their real father and an unknown brother, and delivering a letter to each. Only then will Nawal allow her gravesite to be marked.
The pair is stunned. Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin), less angry than her brother Simon (Maxim Gaudette), sets off for her mother's homeland to discover the truth of her mother's past. The notary at the will-reading sagely counsels: "Death is never the end of the story -- it always leaves traces."
Nawal's homeland is an unnamed Middle-Eastern country whose recent history recalls Lebanon's. As Jeanne muddles through an unfamiliar land, the film initiates a second earlier narrative: that of her mother's -- and her country's -- tumultuous history. Young Nawal (Lubna Azabal), whose family is Christian, becomes pregnant by an Arab refugee; she gives up her baby and moves to the city, in time becoming politically active. As the country descends into war, Nawal fights unsuccessfully to retrieve her son from an orphanage.
The film toggles between Nawal in the 1970s and the contemporary Jeanne (who is later joined by her brother), as each woman searches for the same lost child. Nawal's life is defined by sectarian violence, and her youthful hopes soon transform into fierce, hard-edged emotions capable of sustaining her through miseries. The film suggests that once-passionate Nawal has been a distant, unknowable mother to the twins, and Jeanne's historical search is as much about understanding this unsatisfactory relationship as it is about uncovering the missing family links.
Canadian filmmaker Villeneuve adapted Incendies -- the title means "destroyed by fire" -- from Wajdi Mouawad's play. A domestic melodrama married with a fictionalized history, its translation to the big screen gives it an epic scope, from the wide shots of an alien dusty land (Jordan stood in) to its slow assembly of disparate scenes, many quietly powerful.
The two parallel quests arrive at a point of intersection that, while not inconceivable, does require the story to make a grand leap or two. But you'll believe it because these two actresses have sold their story up to this point -- and because life really can be horrifying.
But that is only the obvious narrative. Incendies' larger truth is undeniable: A cycle of vengeance, tied to unending tribal and religious wars, will twist love to hate, and consume all in its flames.
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Starring Lubna Azabal, Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin, Maxim Gaudette
In French and Arabic, with subtitles
Starts Fri., June 10. Regent Square