"Incendies," the powerful, and powerfully uneven, French-Canadian Oscar nominee for last year's best foreign film, is an intimate epic. Set largely in a fictionalized Middle Eastern country, it's about momentous issues – retribution and reconciliation in the wake of war – but plays out as a detective story framed through the eyes of a single family.
It begins in present-day Montreal as twin adult siblings Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) and Simon (Maxim Gaudette) are notified by a notary of two unusual requests in their mother's will. A sealed envelope is presented to Jeanne with instructions to deliver it to the children's father, even though they were raised by their mother, Nawal Marwan (Lubna Azabal), to believe he had died a heroic death many years before. Simon is also presented with a sealed envelope, to be delivered to a brother they never knew existed.
Simon at first angrily rejects the whole thing, but Jeanne, a mathematician with a meticulous curiosity, travels to her mother's Middle Eastern homeland and attempts to unravel the mystery. The real mystery, as Jeanne soon discovers, is her mother's past life before she immigrated to Canada, about which the children knew nothing.
The director, Denis Villeneuve, has based "Incendies" on the play "Scorched," by Wajdi Mouawad, that was constructed as a series of long, lyrical monologues. For the most part he's done a strong job of paring away the poeticisms; the film rarely betrays its theatrical roots. Alternating between the present and flashbacks to Nawal's harrowing past, Villeneuve sets up a deliberately disorienting structure that mimics the children's confusions (and ours).
Nawal's homeland is clearly meant to be Lebanon, and her time there parallels the 15-year civil war between Christians and Muslims that began in the 1970s. As a Christian, she fought in that conflict, and the scenes of her torture and imprisonment are chilling and also, in some ways, eerily transcendent. Nicknamed by her guards "the woman who sings," Nawal seals herself off from madness by crooning soothingly to herself.
Azabal, a Belgian actress, has a feral, mesmerizing power. On her sullen, aghast face can be read war's true transcript. Without her performance, "Incendies," overlong at 130 minutes, might most often resemble a pastiche of allegorical overreaching and high-caliber melodrama, although Villeneuve stages an attack on a Muslim bus by a Christian militia that brings home the terror of warfare in a way few films ever have.
Such outbursts of power undercut the film's too neat resolutions. By the end, it's as if a Greek tragedy had degenerated into a neater, tidier universe. The film's moral lesson – that violence begets violence – isn't exactly a showstopper, and the balm that is laid on Nawal and her riven family can't quite compensate for the poison that preceded it. Grade: B (Rated R for some strong violence and language.)