Easily the best film I have seen this year, Incendies is a masterpiece from Canadian director Denis Villeneuve. I can see why it won eight Genie awards.
Incendies begins with thirty-year-old twins (Jeanne and Simon) in Montreal being told that their mother’s will requests them to deliver letters to a father they thought was dead and a brother they didn’t know they had. Only upon the delivery of those letters, which represents the fulfillment of a very old promise, will their mother (Nawal) allow her children to bury her properly. Nawal grew up, and gave birth to her children, in the fictitious Middle Eastern country of Fuad, so Jeanne (played wonderfully by Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin) immediately travels to Fuad to see what she can learn of the secret life Nawal has kept hidden from them all these years.
What Jeanne and Simon discover in Fuad will certainly not be shared here, but I can tell you it absolutely took my breath away (a rare feat). Actually, there are many surprises along the way, enough to keep you constantly enthralled even while watching a very slow-moving film.
Most of Incendies takes place in the past, telling the story of Nawal Marwan, an exceptional woman struggling for dignity in a world torn apart by religious violence. In this case, the violence is between Christians and Muslims and the story begins with the consequences of Nawal, a Christian, falling in love with a Muslim. Things go downhill from there as Nawal is caught up in the religious violence in various horrific ways. Nawal, played magnificently by Lubna Azabel, will later seek an unusual form of peace but I will say no more about that.
Incendies is a beautiful haunting film. It is intense and horrific but also incredibly restrained and expertly crafted (e.g. the opening scene of the film only makes sense at the end and when I reflected back on that scene while watching the credits, my breath was taken away again). I could complain about the ‘implausible planning syndrome’ at work in one part of this film and at least one very unlikely coincidence, but these things must be forgiven of a film that is a work of art reflecting on Middle Eastern violence in a profound and poetic way. An easy ****. My mug is up and this time its contents are delicious down to the very last drop.