Incendies: Film Review

Thoughtful, mesmerizing mystery illuminates the tragic history of the Middle East.

At every film festival, there's at least one movie that slips in under the radar and ends up taking the crowds by surprise.

TELURIDE, Colo. -- In Telluride this year, the movies with all the early buzz were such high-profile titles as "127 Hours," "The King's Speech" and "Black Swan." But one of the films that most impressed audiences was the France-Canada film "Incendies," an unknown commodity when the festival started. It will not be a box-office bonanza, but strong reviews could propel it to significant art house success. It was picked up Monday by Sony Pictures Classics.

Based on an acclaimed stage play by Wajdi Mouawad, Denis Villeneuve's film tells a complex story with admirable lucidity. Villeneuve effectively intercuts two parallel stories: At the start, an attorney in Montreal meets with two adult twins, Jeanne (Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin) and Simon (Maxim Gaudette), to read them their mother's will. He startles them by presenting two letters -- one to a father they thought was dead and another to a brother they never knew existed -- that their mother would like them to deliver. Simon initially is irritated by this request, but Jeanne is intrigued, and she travels to Lebanon to try to locate her father and brother.

The rest of the film intercuts the twins' adventures in Lebanon with scenes from the early life of their mother, Nawal (Lubna Azabal), as she lives through the civil war between Christians and Muslims in her country during the 1970s. Nawal is a Christian, but her life is intimately intertwined with the Muslim community in Lebanon until she finally immigrates to Canada. The picture unfolds like a complex puzzle; only gradually do all the pieces fall into place as we discover the secrets that Nawal kept from her children during her lifetime.

The deepest theme of the film is quite riveting -- the idea that children have only the vaguest idea about their parents' lives before they were born. We imagine that we must know how our parents' early lives unfolded, but it requires a huge leap of imagination to enter into the worlds that formed them. That is the odyssey that Jeanne undertakes, and she finally entices Simon to join her. The surprise that awaits them at the end of their journey drew audible gasps from the Telluride audience.

"Incendies" occasionally reveals its theatrical origins but on the whole is re-imagined through vivid cinematic sequences. One of the flashbacks in which Christian troops attack a bus filled with Muslims is one of the most powerful depictions of a wartime atrocity seen in any recent film. Villeneuve exhibits impressive control over the logistics of this ambitious production.

Performances by Azabal, Desormeaux-Poulin and Gaudette are thoroughly persuasive, and Remy Girard brings warmth and wisdom to the role of the concerned lawyer.

Although the film runs more than two hours, the story is so compelling and the production so beautifully controlled that we are gripped by the characters' quest right up to the shocking end of the story.

Venue: Telluride (Sony Pictures Classics)
Production: micro_scope and TS Prods.
Cast: Lubna Azabal, Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin, Maxim Gaudette, Remy Girard, Abdelghafour Elaaziz, Mohamed Majd
Director-screenwriter: Denis Villeneuve
Based on the play by: Wajdi Mouawad
Producers: Luc Dery, Kim McCraw
Director of photography: Andre Turpin
Production designer: Andre-Line Beauparlant
Music: Gregoire Hetzel
Costume designer: Sophie Lefebvre
Editor: Monique Dartonne
No rating, 130 minutes