By Clarissa K. Wittenberg

Canada | France
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
French, Arabic, and English with English Subtitles

A stark movie with spare dialogue and many long-held poses, it is a movie of our time. Villeneuve, born in Quebec, is a young director with an incredible sense of story telling and a clean directorial style. Deceptively simple, with large red titles interspersed throughout, it is a masterpiece with a compelling story. Set in Canada and in the Middle East, it is beautifully realized in all aspects from its unadorned acting to its photography. Time slips in this film, with flashbacks hardly separated from present times. The images of the mother as a young girl and of her daughter as a young woman slide one from the other making it is hard to know if one is seeing the daughter or the mother. The brother and the notary remain contemporary men and help to anchor the film. It is built upon religious conflicts that play out in terms from the tiniest domestic detail to catastrophic wars and murders—the story starts with a forbidden and doomed love affair of a Christian woman and a Muslim man. A child is born and abandoned in an orphanage somewhere in the Middle East as the parents disappear. The mother begins a decades long search for her son. This is a violent film with emotional cruelty and almost careless shootings of innocent and guilty alike. The film is billed as a horror film and a detective story, and this is accurate but only in the largest sense of such categories. It is also a love story with the message that being together, being whole and accepting of the impact and contradictions of life is the only answer.

A pivotal scene begins in the office of a notary (Remy Girard) in Canada as a will is read. A woman, Nawal Marwan (Lubna Azabal) has died and left instructions and letters to her daughter and son, fraternal twins Jeanne (Melissa Dessormeaux-Poulin) and Simon (Maxim Gaudette). The instructions are not to bury her until her children find their father and their brother and deliver her letters. Simon is angered by his mother’s requests, by her inability to live a normal life, and intends to defy her instructions, but Jeanne accepts the quest to find their father. The search, which eventually includes both twins, serves to illuminate their mother’s life and reveal her as a heroic figure, and this new understanding yanks them into an unimagined maturity. Their lives as modern well-educated Canadians will be forever altered.

Themes of torn lives, immigration to new cities, dangerous walks through deserts and destroyed villages to unknown cities are revealed as the twins attempt to find their father and brother. Seemingly friendly guides shun and reject them as they mention their mother’s name. Each answer leads to a new question. Even the conscientious notary who employed their mother for 18 years learns he barely knew her. In a day when the person the next seat over, or driving a cab, or cleaning a room, is as likely as not to have been born across the world, and to have had experiences some of us can never imagine, this film reminds us of how little we know of each other. Incendies is a strong, moving and intelligent film and has been widely acclaimed and chosen for many film festivals including Toronto, Venice and Telluride. It is the official nomination of Canada for the foreign film category of the Academy Awards. If it doesn’t win, I hope I see the film that does.

Incendies (130 minutes, at area theaters) is Rated R for some strong violence and language.

Clarissa K. Wittenberg was a founder and editor of the Washington Review, a journal of arts and literature that documented cultural life in Washington for over 28 years. She is currently Creative Director at the Washington Film Institute.

John Hanshaw

John Hanshaw

founded WFI in the Fall of 2007. He has worked in film and television for over ten years at such institutions as NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation), PBS and most recently National Geographic. He has degrees from Amherst College, Cambridge University, and GW Law.