Denis Villeneuve’s Incendies—an operatic saga of intergenerational woe—is the cinematic equivalent of a Harlem Globetrotters game, with brazen contrivances and a preordained outcome repurposed as dazzling spectacle. A strained melodrama that unspools like the bastard child of Homer and Alejandro González Iñárritu, Incendies devotes the brunt of its 130 minutes to earning the audacity of its resolution—it’s a work of such unchecked ambition that it almost has to be excused before it can be appreciated at all. But if Villeneuve’s film ultimately resolves itself as little more than a gaudy parlor trick, it’s an expertly executed bit of chicanery whose punchline hits you square in the gut.
Incendies follows two contemporary Canadian twins as they attempt to untangle the twisted roots of their family tree, twentysomethings reborn as amateur genealogists when their late mother leaves a will that reads more like a treasure map. Adapted from Wajdi Mouawad’s play of the same name—a four-hour opus that Villeneuve supposedly saw by happenstance on the last night of its Parisian run—Incendies approaches the life of Narwan Marwal (Lubna Azabal) the way that Dan Brown might approach a painting in the Louvre. Narwan has just died in Quebec, the city in which she raised her children, Jeanne and Simon, after stealing them away from the unspecified Middle Eastern country of her tragic adulthood. The children—now adults flirting with thirty—are shocked when the notary reads Narwan’s will and final testament: she kept such life-tilting secrets from her children that it seems she was less of a mother than a levee. Read the rest of David Ehrlich’s review of Incendies.