In the French-Canadian Incendies, a family's secrets are tied up in the tragedies of a war-ravaged Middle Eastern country. A sister and brother investigate their mother's past in a compelling mystery that blossoms into an emotionally intense story of survival and identity. Director Denis Villeneuve has adapted the play (with the English title Scorched) by Wajdi Mouawad with riveting cinematic images. A standing ovation at the Telluride Film Festival is evidence of the film's impact and potential to inspire strong word of mouth. Recently nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, Incendies should draw plenty of attention.
Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) and Simon Marwan (Maxim Gaudette) receive some big surprises when notary Jean Lebel (Rémy Girard, The Barbarian Invasions) reads their mother Nawal's will to them. Their mother left two envelopes for them to deliver: one for the father they believed was dead, another to a brother they did not know existed. Jeanne is determined to visit the Middle East to uncover the family secrets. Simon is uninterested in his mother's past so Jeanne travels alone. Lebel, for whom Narwal worked, is determined to help the search in any way he can.
As Jeanne tries to uncover her mother's past, flashbacks depict the tragic events that confronted the young Nawal (Lubna Azabal, Paradise Now) who grew up in a Christian family in the Middle East. Nawal's male relatives kill her Muslim boyfriend and are ready to murder the pregnant Narwal until her grandmother provides her protection. After Nawal's son is born, her grandmother tattoos dots on the baby's heel for identification. Nawal escapes and leaves her son at an orphanage.
Azabal is superb, conveying Nawal's fiery presence, determination and mounting bitterness. The impressive cast includes non-professionals from Jordan, where Incendies was filmed.
Villenueve has skillfully expanded the stage play to vividly show the large-scale destruction overtaking Nawal's country. Though inspired by Lebanon, birthplace of playwright Mouawad, Villeneuve chose not to name the setting, saying he wanted to set it in an imaginary place, like Costra-Gavras' Z, so as to free it from political bias. Villeneuve describes his film as "about politics, but also apolitical," adding that the play's purpose was "to delve into the subject of anger and not to fuel such anger". The director has crafted an absorbing puzzle.
Trying to find her son, Nawal can pass between the different factions. Seeing a bus headed into a Muslim area, she hides her cross and arranges her scarf to pass for a Muslim. In a powerful and harrowing sequence, the opposing side catches Nawal and the other passengers.
Back in the present, Jeanne visits her mother's home village and finds that Nawal is considered a disgrace. In solidarity with his sister, Simon travels to join Jeanne. They find evidence that their brother (Abdelghafour Elaaziz in flashbacks) has moved between different factions in a conflict in which reprisals continually repeat "like equations." Their investigation builds to a devastating revelation that Nawal had hoped would "break the chain of anger".
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Cast: Lubna Azabal, Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin, Maxim Gaudette and Rémy Girard
Director/Screenwriter: Denis Villeneuve
Producers: Luc Déry and Kim McCraw
Genre: Drama; French and Arabic-language, subtitled
Rating: R for some strong violence and language.
Running time: 130 min
Release date: April 22 ltd.