A modern odyssey into a land that hasn’t changed since Biblical days, “Incendies” unravels an ancient tragedy from the point of view of its descendants. At the bidding of their mother Nawal’s (Lubna Azabal) will, twins Jeanne (Melissa Desomeaux Poulin) and Simon (Maxim Gaudette) are sent on a quest to deliver posthumous letters to a father who has been believed to be dead and a brother they did not know existed. As Jeanne uncovers and follows Nawal’s footprints, a parallel narrative offers an objective view of Nawal’s life, giving the viewer the double perspective of the investigative daughter and confessional mother. Simon is out of the picture for the first half of the story, as he despises his mother so much that he refuses to comply with her last wishes, leaving his sister to accomplish what was intended as their dual mission.
The film opens with a savage vista outside contemporary windows, setting up the visual dichotomy between the worlds of the children and the mother. An air of lethal instability is telegraphed through the mentally unbalanced music of Radiohead, with Thom York’s wavering voice gently nudging us to the precipice of madness. Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, who adapted the script from Wajdi Mouawad’s play, wastes no time in shoving our faces into the barbarism of the Pakistani family code, as we see the young Nawal and her lover chased by her two brothers, who shoot the man point blank and are about to do the same to their sister when their mother intercedes.
Seldom has the mindlessly vicious use of firearms been displayed on the screen with such finality. In one of the most brutal scenes, a bus driver is taken from the bus and murdered by right-wing Christian terrorists who then open fire on its occupants. Three survivors cower inside while gasoline is poured over the top of the bus, where it drizzles through an opening in the roof. The suspense is anguishing. The human terror is even worse. There is plenty of torture and killing in “Incendies,” but the horror is not in graphic depiction, but in the imprint they make upon the viewer’s mind. Villeneuve invites us, not to observe, but to contemplate.
The film also sticks its pins into us through the primeval fear of other people. When Simon finally joins Jeanne on the quest, there is a scene in which two strangers come to his door, telling him to come with them for an hour, that they want to help him. The anxiety of his getting into the car with these people is unbearable, because we have seen the lack of respect for human life in their society, and the slightest misunderstanding could result in sudden death. Another scene simply depicts Jeanne crossing a bridge between the Northern and Southern sectors. People walk intrepidly in both directions, armed soldiers poised in readiness to shoot. Unlike Hitchcock, Villeneuve does not tinker with audience anxiety. He shoots the scene without artifice, knowing the situation alone is enough to unsettle us.
Azabal and Poulin are so psychically convincing as mother and daughter that at times their identities mingle. Both actresses give strong performances in roles that must convey both a sense of heroism and victimization. As the mostly absent Simon, Gaudette has a simpler time of it, but manages to convey the internal bitterness of the abandoned child with a quiet lack of fortitude.
Unlike some movies that have exploited anti-Muslim sentiment to instill a sense of outrage in their audience, “Incendies” shows us that it is not the Muslim religion that so incenses the civilized spirit, but the barbarism on all sides of every border that is responsible for making an inferno of Eden. It is this sickening, violent world in which hatred escalates with every retaliatory strike that breaks Villeneuve’s heart. And his film may break your heart as well.