A staggering political drama that could put you in mind of the intimate sweep of Bernardo Bertolucci, Incendies feels like a mighty movie in our midst. The film seems sprung from a different era—the gloriously bold early ’70s—or perhaps an alien studio system. (That would be Canada’s.) The dislocation fits the material perfectly: Denis Villeneuve’s family drama, based on a much chattier play by Wajdi Mouawad, takes place in a fictional Middle East country a lot like Lebanon, where atrocities linger in memory. But the terrain is abstracted: a jumble of rubble-strewn alleys, banal torture rooms and unpredictable militiamen. (Our first images of the place, set to Radiohead’s churning “You and Whose Army?,” create an ominous mood more suited to dystopian sci-fi.)
This is a land largely unknown to Arab-born Montreal siblings Jeanne (Désormeaux-Poulin) and Simon (Gaudette), who assemble in the offices of their mother’s notary for the reading of her will. They learn of a father they never knew, as well as a brother, and are tasked with finding them both. The scene sounds like a cliché (and is), yet as the movie begins to toggle between the pair’s explorations in the former war zone and flashbacks to the violent life of their mother, Nawal (the restrained Azabal), you forgive the setup. In Villeneuve’s hands, we’re delivered to revelatory terror: A fierce honor killing is eclipsed by a masterfully mounted siege on a Muslim bus by Christian soldiers. Quieter moments of personal reckoning carry explosive weight—to reveal more is to strip the film of its sad wisdom. The country may not exist, but the tale’s truth is everywhere.