Denis Villeneuve’s searing, Oscar-nominated Incendies opens with a mysterious, beguiling scene: In a desert shack in the Middle East turbaned soldiers shave the heads of impossibly young children, as if preparing them for military service. Radiohead’s You and Whose Army? swells on the soundtrack as the camera pulls in tight on one boy, his right heel inked with a tattoo of three simple dots, looking at the camera with a classic Kubrick stare: Head turned down, his eyes cast up directly at the viewer, his gaze accusatory, pleading, damning — or something else.
Then, with a cut, the action jumps to Montreal, where a lawyer (Rémy Girard) stands inside a filing room, apparently steeling himself for a difficult task. He’s about to tell twins Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) and Simon (Maxim Gaudette) that their late mother Nawal (Lubna Azabal) had left directions in her will for them to deliver two letters: One for the father they had long presumed dead, the other for a brother neither knew existed.
The siblings react to the revelations in different ways. Simon is upset and prefers to ignore the situation. But Jeanne is curious and travels to her mother’s homeland of Fuad (a fictitious substitute for Lebanon) to try to carry out her wishes. But where to begin retracing a life that Jeanne apparently knew nothing about?
Incendies alternates between Jeanne’s quest and flashbacks to Nawal’s past as a Christian stuck in the middle of a bloody war between Christians and Muslims in the 1970s. Her life was a series of harrowing ordeals and tragedies that cast her, often unwillingly, in the roles of political prisoner, revolutionary and war victim. Incendies, which roughly translates as “Scorched,” is based on a work by Lebanese playwright Wajdi Mouawad that is filled with long monologues and poetic dissertations. Villeneuve replaces much of the dialogue with equally eloquent visuals and dramatizes specific events — such as an unspeakable assault on a busload of Muslims by Christian soldiers — that give the film tremendous visceral power.
Structured like a mystery, Incendies pulls you along with the twins’ gradual discoveries about their mother and the reasons why she kept her past hidden.
The movie, engrossing as it is intentionally horrifying, is capped by a last-minute revelation that brings the story to a haunting, powerful close. Incendies argues that we don’t always know our parents as well as we think we do — and that sometimes, the truth can exceed our wildest imaginations.
Cast: Lubna Azabal, Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin, Maxim Gaudette, Rémy Girard.
Writer-director: Denis Villeneuve.
Producers: Kim McCraw, Luc Déry.
A Sony Pictures Classics studios release. Running time: 130 minutes. In French and Arabic with English subtitles. Vulgar language, violence, gore, nudity, depictions of wartime atrocity, adult themes. Opens Friday May 20 in Miami-Dade: South Beach; in Palm Beach: Shadowood.