Canada/France (2010) Dir. Denis Villeneuve

When Middle Eastern immigrant Nawal Marwan (Lubna Azabal) suffers a heart attack she instructs her boss, notary Jean Lebel (Rémy Girard) to share the details of her will to her twin children Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) and Simon (Maxim Gaudette). The will reveals Nawal’s had another son back in the Middle East and their task is to find him, resulting into a trip to the Middle East, confronting Nawal’s eventful if shocking past and convoluted family history.

There is a scene halfway through the film where Jeanne is following a lead on her mother which brings her to a school caretaker who knew Nawal under different circumstances. When Jeanne poses a particular question to him, the caretaker replies “You know, sometimes it’s better not to know”. For the best part of this film that would appear to the key theme as each step of the investigation the twins take unearths something darker and more unsettling than before. Fortunately the true premise of this film is about closure and provided peace of mind whether it is best for everyone or not. To say a few unsavoury skeletons are released from the cupboard is something of an understatement.

Intermitting between the twin’s modern day search and flashback, the story unfolds with Jeanne being the first to travel to the Middle East (all locations are fictitious but the Lebanon is a safe bet) to begin the arduous task of putting the pieces of this erratic family history together, armed with just her mother’s photo, passport and crucifix. Nawal’s story begins as a Christian teenager when she falls pregnant to a refugee, who is shot dead by her angry brothers and Nawal is locked away for bringing shame on her family. When the baby is born, Nawal’s mother takes the baby away but not before tattooing his foot so Nawal kind find him later on. From then on we follow two concurrent searches for the same person years apart. Both prove difficult and are not without their trails although Nawal is the one who suffers the most, as her story arc takes place during a civil war.

Discussing the plot any further would spoil the outcome for anyone who has not seen this film. Suffice to say, plenty of ground is covered (both literally and figuratively) and the twists and turns will keep the viewer very much involved and invested in the two stories. The various events and subsequent revelations will seem like either the product of a twisted mind or a reflection of a twisted society (albeit a fictional one). Either way as unsettling as the way this plays out is, it makes for a compelling and powerfully resonant tale that is superbly crafted and equally well executed. Emotions naturally run high and run deep yet there is not one moment of forced sentimentality or melodrama top ruin the mood. Everything the characters feel, the audience feels too.

Based on the play Scorched by Lebanese writer Wajdi Mouawad, Canadian director Denis Villeneuve expertly handles the transition from stage to screen with deft aplomb, presenting a film that is both visually and emotional rich. The Middle East portions were shot in Amman in Jordan and Villeneuve makes great use of its sandy, bucolic landscapes, showing them off with some sweeping camerawork. The flashback scenes are arguably the most rewarding with such powerful scenes as the pivotal moment in the desert in which a group of terrorists hijack a bus Nawal is on. Not just visually well constructed and but one of the most tense and dread filled scenes in the whole film.

Performance wise the film really belongs to two people; Lubna Azabal (thirty-seven at the time) portrays Nawal from a teenager to her last days as sixty year-old mother. Her essaying of this tragic but resilient character is stunning on both a physical and emotional level. Meanwhile the barely younger Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin as Jeanne, has such a wonderfully expressive face that she captivates the viewer and draws them into the feeling of the moment with a single look. Sadly Maxim Gaudette as Simon is bland and emotionless but this doesn’t detract from the film’s enjoyment.

Losing out to Denmark’s In a Better World for the 2011 Best Foreign Language Oscar, Incendies is a sublime piece of dramatic cinema that provides heartbreak, horror and humanity in one two hour chunk, superbly shot and convincingly acted. A powerful viewing experience indeed.