Jeanne sits next to her brother Simon in a hotel room in the Middle East. They've ended up there because of two letters written by their mother Nawal before she died. Jeanne, a mathematician, acts first, leaving Montreal, where their mother immigrated and they grew up, to travel back to Nawal's homeland, where she, a Christian, had the misfortune to fall in love with a Muslim.
Simon (played by Maxim Gaudette) and Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) never knew much about their mother's life before they were born, but they're going to discover some things thanks to instructions left in those letters: one is to search for their brother, the other for their father. And near the end of Incendies they're both close to finding what they're looking for; it's just not going to be easy. Simon cryptically tells Jeanne what he's discovered as she searches his face for clues. And then, in an agonizing instant, she understands — and her gasp is one of the most unpleasant moments in a movie that piles inhuman actions one atop another.
The scene perfectly captures the devastating calm that permeates French Canadian director Denis Villeneuve's adaptation of Wajdi Mouawad's 2003 play. Incendies tells a familiar tale of how warring times turn people into monsters, but at its core it's a portrait of Nawal (Lubna Azabal), a woman who fell in love with the wrong person, and how that simple human act rippled throughout her life as Christian turned against Muslim, as revolutionary fervor broke out and ravaged its way through her country, and as men turned to old cruelties to deal with women radicalized by belief and motherly instincts.
Villeneuve deals out the story like a skilled croupier, turning over moments in Jeanne and Simon's present-day Montreal lives before flashing back to Nawal as a young woman, college student, covert triggerman, and defiant political prisoner who finds her own way to deal with torture and much worse. Nawal's story gets intertwined with Jeanne's journey as she retraces her mother's steps through the Middle East, where Simon eventually joins her. They never asked to know what they find out. But getting the faintest view of their mother's complicated, tragic, and at times heroic life offers them glimmers of understanding.
Incendies' cross-cutting stories gain an occasional lyrical momentum, a cinematic touch the director announces from his very first shot, when a group of young Middle Eastern boys line up to get their heads shaved as Radiohead's "You and Whose Army" plays on the soundtrack. It finishes with a slow zoom into a tight shot of one boy's cold stare. It's an inscrutably arresting moment that immediately draws you into this world. By the time the scene makes sense within the context of the movie, this already potent opening casts a haunting shadow over the entire film.
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