Review by © Jane Freebury

What do we know about the lives that others leave behind when they arrive in their adopted country? Migrant cultures like ours or Canada or the US will be brimming with such stories, simmering below the surface, waiting to be told.

The story of Incendies is the work of Lebanese-Canadian Waji Mouawad, adapted from his stage play with the title Scorched, which roughly approximates with the name of this Denis Villeneuve film. As it travels to the frontline of implacable sectarian violence in the Middle East, there is no hint of theatrical origins in this film of few words, except in the revelation at the very end. Incendies is at the same time an odyssey of the soul.

Events get rolling in multicultural Montreal where a brother and sister listen to a reading of their mother’s will, an experience that brings out the son’s rejection and resentment of his strange and distant mother. His twin sister responds differently to the request it contains and sets off to the unspecified, war-torn country – Lebanon apparently – that her mother left behind.

Daughter Jeanne (Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin), who is a mathematician and logician, is determined to find the answer to the puzzle, while her brother Simon (Maxim Gaudette) only wants to close the door on it.

When Jeanne’s poignant journey reaches the family’s village she is turned away once her identity is revealed. In time Simon joins her, but has to undertake the dangerous last leg of the quest alone. He must venture into the labyrinthine alleys of a refugee camp and allow himself to be blindfolded to meet a warlord face-to-face. His personal rite of passage.

The life of their mother Narwal, played with dignified restraint by Lubna Azabal, is revealed chapter by grim chapter until the awful secret that precipitates her decline and death is revealed. Some may not accept its coincidence, and the actors’ apparent ages don’t seem to corroborate it that well. Yet I have no problem with accepting the fact that when war decimates families it scrambles kinship bonds and annihilates identity.

In the south of Narwal’s homeland there is a feud to the death between Christian and Moslem militia. The cities and towns are hollowed-out ruins and the countryside is dotted with burnt-out ruins that were witness to unspeakable horror. Reprisal follows reprisal with the pitiless logic of an equation.

Incendies was a contender for best foreign language film at the Oscars. The twists and turns of its labyrinthine plot could teach the aspiring detective story writer a thing or two, as it plays out, always a nimble step ahead of its audience. A very moving, painfully engrossing saga that speaks for a region, from which one hopes a different kind of story will eventually emerge.

In a capsule: At their dead mother’s request, a brother and sister travel to the Middle East to find the rest of their family, only to discover terrible experiences from which they were shielded, but now need to know. Very moving, painfully and utterly engrossing.

4 stars