Canada/France | 2010 | Directed by Denis Villeneuve

Logline: The perplexing request of a mother’s will sends her adult son and daughter into the dark heart of the Middle East to discover their tangled roots amidst hatred and love.

The French word “incendies” translates roughly as “destruction by fire” or “scorched”. And indeed, this is a searing, slow-burn drama that quietly crackles like a murder mystery, blisters like a thriller, and scars like the best tragedies of love and despair. Yet it also offers a unusual sense of reward, a kind of baptism by the flames of inhumanity that results in a movie that has you emotionally battered and bruised, but complete.

Incendies tells two journeys and runs their narrative concurrently, jumping back and forth between two timelines. There is the path of discovery a brother and sister are forced to take after they are read their mother’s last wishes. Two envelopes reveal a father they thought was dead, and a brother they didn’t know existed. Jeanne (Melissa Desormeaux Poulin) and Simon (Maxim Gaudette) will only be granted their mother’s burial rights by her notary (Remy Girard) once they’ve solved this enigmatic “inheritance”.

The second narrative arc is that of their mother Nawal (Lubna Azabal), her story from the hardships of her young adult life to her posthumous mind games. She is revealed as an exceptional woman who endured the most heart-wrenching twists of fate, right up to her final days. Jeanne and Simon must travel into a harsh and unforgiving landscape, an unnamed Middle Eastern country (Beirut?) where their mother struggled to survive.

Incendies is a study of violence and resilience. Denis Villeneuve elicits stunning performances from his three leads, especially Luban Azabal, a tour-de-force from her. There is a stark and desolate beauty to the mise-en-scene, cinematography and score. Each scene builds on the last taking the audience deeper into this intriguing, but ominous family mystery. There is a brooding sense of menace that lingers through much of the second half of the movie.

Based on a play by Wajdi Mouawad, Denis Villeneuve has fashioned a superbly cinematic adaptation with striking imagery and a powerfully affecting mood. Politics riddles the movie, but never does it feel like propaganda or a socio-political lecture. There is complexity, nothing is black and white, and there is a beautiful narrative core that transcends any language limitations. Incendies delivers its dual stories with minimal dialogue.

Incendies is harrowing, but ultimately a movie of rare fractured beauty. Denis Villeneuve made one of my favourite French-Canadian movies of the past twenty years with Maelstrom (2000), with Incendies he tackles a similar sense of loneliness and quest for knowledge, but bravely ventures outside of his comfort zone; in geography, origin, and language.