By Eric Kohn | Indiewire April 21, 2011 at 1:29AM
There's a strong feeling of gravitas coursing through "Incendies," the third and most widely acclaimed feature directed by Quebec director Denis Villeneuve ("Polytechnique"). You can sense it from the very first scene, in which Radiohead's haunting elegy 'You and Whose Army?" plays on the soundtrack while a group of young boys stare emptily into the camera and anonymous figures shave the kids' heads. The mystery of this event carries over into subsequent ones, as Villeneuve develops a curiously poignant story that has tremendous power so long as its details remain vague.
Based on the play by Wajdi Mouawad, "Incendies" essentially amounts to a globe-trotting detective story. Grown twins Jeanne and Simon Marwan (Mélissa Désormeaux Poulin and Maxim Gaudette) learn from their mother Narwal's newly unwrapped will that their family is a lot larger than they thought. Per their mother's instructions, each sibling receives an envelope, one revealing that the father they always assumed dead still lives, and the other revealing that they have a brother. Despite Simon's insistence on burying the past, Jeanne follows their mother's posthumous instruction to deliver a pair of concealed notes to their unidentified relatives. The daughter heads to Narwal's origin--somewhere in the Middle East--to track them down.
While its early scenes apparently take place in Quebec, and the main characters speak French, much of "Incendies" evades a specific geopolitical setting. As Jeanne begins uncovering aspects of her mother's history, the tale takes on an allegorical quality. Played by Lubna Azabal, the late Narwal becomes as much a heroine in the story as her children, with the woman's series of misadventures taking place in flashbacks whenever Jeanne uncovers new information.
Villeneuve's screenplay avoids naming Narwal's specific nationality, as well as the devastating war that draws her away from her family and eventually turn her into a tortured prisoner of war. As a result, "Incendies" emphasizes the personal impact of all wartime strife on subsequent generations. "Sometimes, it's better not to know," one Middle Eastern veteran tells Jeanne when she gets a little bit closer to uncovering her father's identity.
But Jeanne insists, and eventually her brother can't help but tag along. Since the flashbacks are based solely on the information that the pair comes across, Narwal's experiences develop at a piecemeal rate. Faced with an invasion, she parts with her first child and rides a bus into the desert, which stops suddenly when a masked terrorists show up and blows everyone but her to bits. She then becomes politically active, enacting revenge on those responsible for her troubled existence with a sudden assassination that lands her behind bars. At that point, Narwal's story grows murkier, but the drama maintains a Biblical potency that defies the need for specifics. The themes, however, stand strong.
Villeneuve draws intense, measured performances from his trio of leads, emphasizing the siblings' constant, wide-eyed expressions as they keep digging for more information and begin to sympathize with their dead mother's grief. This dreary scenario works so well in abstraction that most of the plot twists detract from its power. There's too much happenstance involved in Jeanne and Simon's quest, particularly once the big reveal arrives. The sins of the father are visited upon his children (and vica versa) with provocative results that move audiences to keep thinking about the narrative long after it ends. But the climax is a little too clever and far-fetched--an unnecessarily neat finale for a movie that works fine when dealing in broad strokes, some of which are nothing short of masterful.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? After its acclaimed debut at last year's Telluride Film Festival, "Incendies" went on to land an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film. Positive word of mouth has been boosted by strong reception at festivals around the world, which should lead to a great reception for the movie at arthouses around the country and increase the attention given to Villeneuve's next project.
criticWIRE grade: B+
Sony Pictures Classics opens "Incendies" in New York on April 22.