(Denis Villeneuve , Canada/France, 2010) 139 minutes


Director: Denis Villeneuve
Producers: Luc Déry, Kim McCraw
Screenplay: Denis Villeneuve, from the
  play Scorched by Wajdi Mouawad
Cinematography: André Turpin
Editor: Monique Dartonne
Music: Grégoire Hetzel
Mustafa Kamel (Officer Milice Chrétienne)
Hussein Sami (Nihad [5 years])
Rémy Girard (Notaire Jean Lebel)
Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin (Jeanne Marwan)
Maxim Gaudette (Simon Marwan)
Dominique Briand (Professor Niv Cohen)
Lubna Azabal (Nawal Marwan)

Reviews and notes

2010 Venice, Telluride, Toronto, Warsaw, Vancouver, Thessaloniki
2011 Sundance, Rotterdam, Glasgow, Adelaide, Belgrade, Hong Kong, San Francisco, Karlovy Vary, Wellington, Helsinki

A staggering political drama that could put you in mind of the intimate sweep of Bernardo Bertolucci, Incendies feels like a mighty movie in our midst. The film seems sprung from a different era - the gloriously bold early '70s - or perhaps an alien studio system. The dislocation fits the material perfectly: Denis Villeneuve's family drama, based on a much chattier play by Wajdi Mouawad, takes place in a fictional Middle East country a lot like Lebanon... In Villeneuve's hands, we're delivered to revelatory terror: A fierce honor killing is eclipsed by a masterfully mounted siege on a Muslim bus by Christian soldiers. Quieter moments of personal reckoning carry explosive weight - to reveal more is to strip the film of its sad wisdom. The country may not exist, but the tale's truth is everywhere.
- Joshua Rothkopf, Time Out New York, 19 April 2011.

Now this is how you adapt a play for the screen. Not by opening up the action in extraneous, travelogue-minded ways. But by burrowing so deeply into the characters' psyches, their discoveries become your own and at some point you realize you're watching a better film than any you've seen since 2010.

The source material is the play Scorched (2003) by Wajdi Mouawad, a Lebanese-born theater artist who emigrated to Quebec and then Montreal. Brilliantly adapted, his play has become the Oscar-nominated drama Incendies by writer-director Denis Villeneuve. Both play and movie owe a debt to the Sophoclean tragedy Oedipus Rex. It's a testament to the effectiveness of Mouawad's story, taking place in a Montreal-like city as well as an unnamed Middle Eastern country resembling Lebanon, that once you're hit with its enormous, logic-stretching revelation you're emotionally prepared to follow these people anywhere.

Incendies is no mere riff on a Greek mainstay. It is its own entity, delicate and fierce. Already I've risked making it sound like homework. It's not; it's an enthralling drama of survival. It begins simply, with a meeting of siblings. Grown twins Jeanne and Simon are told by a notary that their late mother's will requires them to deliver two sealed and utterly mysterious envelopes, one to their father (presumed dead but very much alive), the other to a brother they didn't realize existed.

This requires a trip to the homeland of their mother, Nawal. Her early life was never much discussed. Incendies gradually illustrates the reasons, weaving an intricate web of flashbacks, revealing more and more about Nawal's early pregnancy, her promise to track down her lost son, her involvement in one corner of her country's latest civil war. There is only one way Nawal's children can learn enough to become whole beings: by digging further and further back into the past.

Guiding the performances with an unerring hand, director Villeneuve removes all traces of schematics from Incendies. Two performances are key. As Jeanne, the haunting Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin is an ideal audience-identification figure; even when the narrative events practically goad the performers into overstatement, she's there, quietly, holding back enough to pull us forward into every scene to which her character pays witness. Nawal is portrayed by Lubna Azabal, who conceals so much behind war-ravaged eyes, she rivets the attention even without saying a word.

As a six-year-old boy, playwright Mouawad witnessed a brutal attack by Christian militiamen on a bus carrying unarmed Palestinians outside Beirut. This was in retaliation for the unprovoked killing of a Christian outside a church. The revenge slaughter ignited a full-scale war. In Incendies, a variation on this horrific scene becomes a piece of Nawal's puzzle. Every detail in the scene, as arranged and framed by Villeneuve (note the selectively unrealistic use of sound), adds to the impact without cheapening the visceral effect. Human beings do things like this every day, somewhere. Not monsters. Men.

The original play runs three hours, and its English-language version often groans under the weight of its brand of poetic language. The movie, nearly an hour shorter, moves like water and uses only as many words as needed to keep us oriented (some of the past/present jumps risk confusion) and ever-more compelled by Nawal's destiny. The opening shot of Incendies shows a group of boys getting their heads shaved, presumably by those training them for a life of terrorism. One boy's eyes, fixed on the camera, are not easy to forget. Nothing in this remarkable drama is.
- Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune, 28 April 2011.

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