Probing the aftermath of a brutal civil war in an unnamed Middle-Eastern country (likely based, at least partly, on Lebanon), Incendies makes the political personal. Or, rather, makes the bloody generalities inherent in any religio-ethnic conflict personal, since director Denis Villeneuve is less interested in historical specificity than in outlining the series of atrocities suffered by and tough decisions forced upon a single hapless victim/survivor. An enormously effective piece of filmmaking, Incdendies unfolds as a series of eye-opening disclosures which Villeneuve plays as much for (admittedly enthralling) sensation as for any kind of wider-ranging inquiry, a questionable approach given the thorny nature of the material.
Effortlessly cutting between past and present, hopping from character to character, the film traces the discovery by a pair of Middle Eastern-born, French Canadian-reared twins of their late mother Nawal's (Lubna Azabal) past history in her war-torn homeland. After the elder woman's sudden death, her two kids are charged with returning to her native country to deliver a pair of letters, one to the brother they never knew they had, the other to the father neither of them ever met. While mathematician Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux Poulin) eagerly sets off to the fictional city of Daresh, her brother Simon (Maxim Gaudette) initially refuses his assignment, stubbornly remaining in Canada until the film's final act. As Jeanne starts questioning the locals, the revelations begin to come hot and heavy and Villeneuve moves back and forth between the daughter's present-day efforts at discovery and scenes of her mother's past actions and struggles, a litany that includes, for starters, assassinating a right-wing nationalist leader and enduring endless rape sessions while incarcerated in a notorious prison.
A real high-wire act, Incendies communicates at nearly every moment the idea that something bad can, and almost certainly will, happen. (Even such seemingly innocuous setups as an early scene where Jeanne is waiting to be introduced to a classroom of math students is rendered sinister through the director's habit of blurring the background into a mass of oozy suggestion.) The result is a continually escalating tension that perpetually builds to one of the film's numerous revelations, set up like ticking time bombs to explode at predetermined points throughout the tightly controlled narrative. When they come, they're often devastating, nonetheless so for Villeneuve's (relatively) restrained presentation. When Jeanne learns of Nawal's harrowing jail-time experience—as well as her stubborn determination to use singing as an act of moral resistance—from a former prison guard, the director wisely keeps the camera fixed on Désormeaux-Poulin's face, as the actress skillfully registers a profound disturbance desperately held back to avoid a tear-laced outburst.
But for all the individual power of these scenes (and not all are as restrained as Jeanne's encounter with the ex-jailer), there's the sense that they ultimately tell us little about the nature of "civil" conflicts except that they lead to endless cycles of violence and make people suffer terrible atrocities. Whether staging an intense moment of brutality or doling out a horrifying revelation, Villeneuve effortlessly communicates a sense of abject horror, but by simply dialing up a litany of miserable situations (taken, one assumes, largely from Wajdi Mouawad's source play), he makes this intensity seem rather too easy. Only in one sequence, where the Christian Nawal, who comes to hate the nationalist cause being waged in her religion's name, shuffles between wearing a cross and a head scarf to fit in with both her own people and the Muslims depending on which is to her advantage, does Villeneuve successfully communicate the arbitrary nature of the conflict's religious underpinnings. The subsequent burning of a bus full of Muslim women and the shooting of a young girl in cold blood by nationalists with pictures of the Virgin Mary on their machine guns rather forcefully drives home the point.
But mostly the film's high drama, like its dexterous handling of narrative and its expert mixture of static framings and skillful tracking shots (the opener in particular's a stunner), seems like so much empty sensation. Perhaps it's a question of Villaneuve's deliberate avoidance of precise historical circumstances, but by the time the film moves into its ludicrous, if genuinely shocking, final revelation, there's little doubt that this is one virtuoso show whose truth-will-out gambit the director is far more interested in playing for more for momentary effect than lasting understanding.