Does anyone truly win a war? Perhaps one nation comes out ahead in terms of political and military advantage after an armed conflict, but as far as the people in the midst of the fighting are concerned, either by design or by accident, can anyone walk away without scars? Playwright Wajdi Mouawad used one woman's harrowing and ultimately tragic story as a metaphor to consider the grim impact of war on the people caught in the crossfire -- particularly in the political and sectarian conflicts that have gripped the Middle East for decades -- in his stage drama Incendies. Filmmaker Denis Villeneuve has brought Mouawad's play to the screen, and while he's successfully opened it up and added elements that would have been impossible or impractical on a stage, he hasn't lost the emotional power and intimacy of the story, and the result is a film that confronts love, hatred, and betrayal as they move amongst one another in a dance between the bonds of family and the lingering decay of hostility.
Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) and Simon (Maxim Gaudette) are twin siblings living in Montreal dealing with the recent death of their mother, Nawal (Lubna Azabal), who passed away after falling into a mysterious silence for several weeks. Nawal worked as a secretary for Lebel (Rémy Girard), a notary who has agreed to handle her will, and in his office he hands Jeanne and Simon two envelopes -- one to be given to their brother, the other to be given to their father. This comes as a shock to the siblings, who had been raised to believe their father died when they were infants and had no idea they had a brother. Simon scoffs at these requests, but Jeanne dutifully takes a leave of absence from her career as an academic and travels to the Middle East to uncover the facts about the father and brother they never knew. The film moves back and forth between Jeanne's present-day search for her mother's history and the truth about her family, and the past, as we witness Nawal's tragic story while it unfolds. After the murder of her lover when it was discovered that she had become pregnant, Nawal was cared for by her grandmother, who sent her to the city to go to school after giving her newborn son to an orphanage. While attending college, Nawal became a political activist trying to bring peace to the region; however, an act of violence led her to join forces with a radical group and take part in a planned political assassination. Nawal's actions led her to prison, where she was subjected to torture and even rape, yet this degradation would not prove to be the saddest and most horrible part of her story.
In Incendies, Mouawad and Villeneuve never give a name to the country where Nawal's story takes place, and though some of the factions fighting among themselves are identified as Christian and Muslim, most of the time we don't know who is fighting whom, or why. And that seems to be very much the point; Incendies isn't the story of any particular war, but of the people who find themselves drawn into the conflict or simply happen upon it, and how the further they follow the path into violence, the more it brings ugly and unexpected consequences to those around them, like a snake swallowing its own tail. Although there are some very real dramatic fireworks in Incendies, in his direction and screenplay, Denis Villeneuve is wise enough to underplay the action most of the time, only letting the dread of Nawal's story explode into terror when it truly serves the film's purposes. Villeneuve has given the film a naturalistic look and feel that's pitch-perfect for this story (aided considerably by cinematographer André Turpin and production designer André-Line Beauparlant), and his cast does superb work, particularly Lubna Azabal, who credibly ages decades while she's torn between love and revenge as Nawal, and Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin, who as Jeanne allows us to see the horrors of her mother's story and her loving but difficult family relationships through her eyes. The horror of war is not a new theme; it has been covered onscreen enough times to become hackneyed in the wrong hands. With Incendies, however, Denis Villeneuve hasn't given us a polemic or a traditional statement about violence. Instead, he's crafted an honest and deeply moving fable in which the poison of hatred leaves a mark wherever it goes, even against those we were meant to love, and the craft, intelligence, and passion with which he tells the tale is truly impressive and affecting.