Some stories are so intricately woven and superbly paced that it’s almost pointless to try and sum them up in a movie review. Incendies – which received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film and is adapted from the play by Wajdi Mouawad – is an intense and absorbing cross-generational, cross-cultural mystery, one that carefully but deliberately winds itself up. When the tension is finally released, you’re hit straight in the gut with not one, but three plot twists, each more surprising than the last. My natural impulse is to resist twist endings, since they tend to be mechanical; for the first time in ages, they were so well written and so skillfully integrated that I could willingly surrender myself to them, implausible though they may be. But I fear I’ve already said too much. This is one film you’d be better off going into cold. The less you know beforehand, the greater impact it will have on you.
Alas, I want to praise this film, and that requires me to delve into the plot. I want to word this as carefully as possible, since spoiling the whole thing is the last thing I want to do. The film stars Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin and Maxim Gaudette as fraternal twins Jeanne and Simon Marwan. Their mother, Nawal, has died. A notary named Lebel (Rémy Giard) reads them her will, which gives very specific and unusual instructions for how she wishes to be buried. For now, let’s just say that she had her reasons. The twins learn, through the acquisition of a pair of envelopes, that (1) their father is still alive, even though their mother always told them otherwise, and (2) that they have a long lost brother. Nawal’s instructions are very clear: Jeanne must deliver one letter to the father, and Simon must deliver the other letter to the brother.
But what sounds easy on paper will turn out to be a harrowing and emotionally devastating journey, one that will take the twins from their native Canada to their mother’s birthplace in the war-torn Middle East. The more they dig into her past, the more they realize they never really knew her at all. Flashback sequences tell the story of Nawal (Lubna Azabal), a Christian girl who shamed her family by falling for a Muslim, was forced to give up her most precious possession, and lived life as a liberal student activist before being arrested, incarcerated, and tortured. I’m intentionally being vague on the specifics. These events don’t unfold in conventional ways; the film is structured to take us up to a certain point, then backtrack to events in Nawal’s life, then flash forward again to the present. The intention is have our perceptions changed right along with those of the lead characters. It succeeds in tremendous fashion.
So much of the film is revealed through facial expressions. The opening scene, in which orphaned Middle Eastern boys get their heads shaved by men with guns, includes an especially powerful lingering shot, which zooms ever so slowly onto the face of one particular boy; he stares directly into the camera, and it’s downright chilling. Later in the film, a flashback sequence shows Nawal sitting in a vegetative state at a public pool. Clearly, she has snapped. But why then? What did she see? We also get many glances at the faces of local Middle Eastern men and women, who may have known Nawal but are afraid to admit it, especially to Jeanne. Simon, the more brooding of the pair, is content to simply forget this wild goose chase, give their mother a traditional burial, and move on with his life. Indeed, there are some truths that are better left undiscovered.
There is, I think, questionable logic at work when it comes to Nawal’s letters, which were never meant to be read by either Jeanne or Simon. Rather than come clean about their father and brother, even after her death, she instead has them go on a journey rife with opportunities to fail. What is she really achieving by doing this? Certainly it isn’t to relive herself of her guilt; she’s already dead. And yet, without this plot device, there would be no room for the final scenes, at which point the twists come into play. Suspension of disbelief is required of you. This shouldn’t be a problem, considering how effortlessly the film works to earn its creative licenses. Even thrillers can be first rate.
I’ve probably revealed much more than I should have, which is bad because Incendies is the kind of film that deserves an unbiased mindset. It will grab you and not let you go for nearly two and a half hours. If it plays its cards right, as I believe it does, you will never once feel as if you’re caught in its grip. If anything, you’ll be on the edge of your seat, anxiously awaiting what will happen next. When it’s over, you may become aware of the plot mechanics. While it’s playing, you won’t even realize you’re being toyed with. This is how the best mysteries work. Apart from that, it’s also a compelling and uncompromising examination of religious intolerance; amazing, how nationwide hatred and bloodshed can perpetuate because of small conflicts, many of which are distant and murky memories.