Incendies opens with a challenge. The camera floats through a room of child militants having their heads shaved. For a moment it lingers on the mark that distinguishes them all: three small dots on the heel. Then, we meet one boy’s gaze head on. We do not yet know who he is, and we glean nothing from his expression.
The scene dares us to discover an answer and make sense of a tragedy. The challenge remains, driving a relentless plot supplemented by the history of a civil war, with some family drama thrown in for good measure. Director Denis Villeneuve has created a film that, admittedly, tries to do too much at once. Still, when it succeeds, Incendies is gripping.
Since its premiere on the film festival circuit last year, Incendies has been lauded by critics, nominated for an Academy Award, and showered with just about every Canadian film prize there is. It’s hard to view a film like this without some set of expectations, which are unfortunately not always fulfilled.
The film follows twins Jeanne and Simon Marwan as they leave their home in Québec to locate their father and brother and execute their mother’s will. The setup is simple, but the search is another story. We discover hardly anything about the protagonists before their adventure, but it’s no matter. The pair act as guides through the scavenger hunt of a plot, which is often more functional than expressive. A parallel story concerns their mother, Nawal, whose heart-rending history is uncovered by Jeanne.
Nawal’s involvement in the conflict (which, though unnamed, resembles the Lebanese Civil War) unfolds in fragmentary flashbacks, contextualized by Jeanne’s detective work. The story of her imprisonment—15 years of torture in a political prison—is oddly uplifting, even as the details border on unbearable.
The themes at hand are proudly contemporary. At times, Incendies can feel like an assault, enumerating tragedy after tragedy in an unnamed Middle Eastern country. But even with its intense preoccupation with recent history, Incendies is never entirely consumed by the political. Instead, it plays like a tall tale, its theatricality slowly becoming evident. The film flirts with grandeur, and tries its hardest to maintain a gloss of plausibility despite its whirlwind plot.
Based on the play by Wajdi Mouawad, Incendies unfolds like a mystery, entailing the form’s intrigue along with its superficiality. The film’s 130 minutes are as lean as they could possibly be, but the exposition necessary to sustain the plot crowds out much character or thematic development. Incendies is heavy throughout, not only for its subject matter, but for the bulky plot Villeneuve is constantly struggling against.
But in the end, the film concedes. Jeanne and Simon complete their mission (with a half-satisfying twist) and disappear. The puzzle has been solved, and Villeneuve wants to leave it at that. The historical and cultural questions which kept us looking for something more beneath this mystery are too conveniently abandoned.
Still, it would be wrong to characterize the film as a failure. Villeneuve deftly avoids many of the pitfalls that keep similar films from finding an audience beyond the film festival crowd. His allegiance remains with direct storytelling, not with artistry, lending the film a kind of immediacy that is hard to ignore. Ultimately, what counts is the film’s unflinching humanity and refusal to dip into easy sentimentality.
Despite its faults, Incendies is marked with moments of uncommon understanding, and occasionally, Villeneuve’s camerawork is profound. Images like an abandoned concrete cell, a pair of machine guns adorned with a portrait of Jesus Christ, and a bus aflame amid a barren landscape lend the film a serene and brutal beauty. These striking moments and the humble insights they impart will remain with any viewer. Even if it isn’t the film of the year, Incendies is too careful and too warm a film to ignore.