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My dictionary offers several definitions for the word “incendiary,” including “inflammatory” and “tending to arouse strife.” Both of those meanings and their figurative use come into play in the riveting French-Canadian drama Incendies, which was nominated for an Oscar this year as Best Foreign Language film. It has a unique story to tell that deals with such powerful subjects as prejudice, intolerance, extremism, forgiveness, and redemption, stirred in a cauldron fueled by politics and family dynamics.

Despite the fact that most of the action takes place in a Middle Eastern country, the film is more personal than political. In adapting Wadji Mouwad’s stage play, director Denis Villeneuve decided not to name that country, because he decided it wasn’t relevant. The characters’ actions and reactions are what matter.

It’s difficult to discuss Incendies without revealing at least some of the plot, which begins in—

—the present day: a twin brother and sister go to a notary’s office to hear the reading of their mother’s will. Speaking to them from the grave, as it were, she says she will not rest in peace until they locate their father and brother. Since they never knew they had another sibling, and believed their father to be dead, this comes as quite a shock. Simon wants nothing to do with this, but Jeanne sets off to her ancestral Middle Eastern homeland to learn what she can. This stirs up age-old resentments and puts her in harm’s way.

Through flashbacks, covering many years’ time, we learn the mother’s often-heartbreaking story of forbidden love, abandonment, and nearly impossible choices amidst never-ending political turmoil. Jeanne begins to understand what made her mother seem so detached in her later years: what she suffered was almost unimaginable. But only through this journey of discovery can Jeanne and her brother find peace and finally understand what their mother was all about.

With chance and coincidence playing key roles in the unfolding story, there is potential for melodrama at every turn, but Villeneuve and his talented actors never cross that line. We often read astonishing stories of human tragedy and triumph in the midst of war; this one is no less credible for being a work of fiction. Incendies is a striking and memorable experience, well worth seeking out in its U.S. theatrical release.

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