Denis Villeneuve dives headfirst into the morass of the Lebanese Civil War in his adaptation of Wajdi Mouawad’s play, embarking on a quest for the truth that offers answers as muddled as the questions that precede them. When Lebanese Canadian twins Jeanne and Simon’s mother dies, they’re surprised by a special request at the reading of her will to deliver one letter each to their missing father and a brother they know nothing about. Simon hotheadedly dismisses the task as a wild goose chase, but Jeanne takes it upon herself to travel to Lebanon to investigate her mother’s claims. Her journey is intercut with flashbacks to their mother Nawal’s life around the time of the war, creating a twofold narrative that captures the deep divisions of Lebanese society at the height of its sectarian violence, then again hardly two decades later when the memories are still fresh and the wounds still smarting.
Nawal’s (Lubna Azabal) personal history complicates matters more. Far from being a refugee who got out while the getting was good, or even as someone who kept her head down while the fighting raged around her, she’s the Christian Juliet to a Muslim Romeo. Her story opens at the climax of their tragedy, her boyfriend gunned down by her brothers, her baby placed in an orphanage to save her family the embarrassment. Embittered, later politicized by her uncle, then radicalized even more by the war, her story becomes a touchy subject for Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) to bring up no matter what side of the conflict her interlocutors were on.
Villeneuve’s measured direction sets a tone reflected in Jeanne’s training as a university mathematician, and suggests that we’re on our way to a logical conclusion. Painful maybe, but logical. This is a deception, however, that’s made all the more ominous by Villeneuve’s smooth photography, which gives the movie a dreamlike flow unfazed by brutal violence and horrific revelations. Incendies works in riddles more than equations, a realization that comes to gut-wrenching life the deeper Jeanne, and later Simon (Maxim Gaudette), dig. Soulful performances and unflinching camerawork rise above the preciousness of a couple Radiohead tunes used as melancholy underscores, and a fractured narrative conveys the perfect amount of foreshadowing for dark things to come. Incendies does offer answers, but they’re hardly logical and less than welcome when they arrive. Villeneuve clings to a measure of hopefulness, but it might take someone who’s been through as much hell as Nawal to be able to feel the same way.