It is not often that a movie lingers long after the credits have rolled. Much like an intense personal experience, Incendies is the kind of film that leaves you emotionally drained, and haunts you for days on end.
The Oscar-nominated movie opens with a subtly powerful scene in which young boys are having their heads shaved in preparation for war. Director Denis Villeneuve homes in on one particular boy, who stares at you with an unflinching eye while Thom Yorke’s voice howls in a Radiohead song blaring in the background.
Based on a play by Lebanese-Canadian playwright Wajdi Moawad, Incendies is a melodrama, a mystery and a love story, all masterfully intertwined. The movie elegantly stretches a timeline from contemporary Quebec to war-torn Lebanon of the 1970s.
Canadian twins Jeanne and Simon have just lost their mother, Nawal, who has left them two letters in her will – one for the father they presumed had died, the other for a brother they didn’t know existed. It is their mother’s dying wish that the twins deliver these letters.
Their search for the family they never knew leads them to Nawal’s homeland in the Middle East. Although the places visited in the film are fictional, the viewer realises that it is meant to be the playwright’s homeland, Lebanon.
In their quest to unravel the mystery, the twins travel in a relatively peaceful nation. Villeneuve weaves in Nawal’s journey through the same landscape four decades earlier, when it was ravaged by civil war and sectarian violence.
Nawal’s life before the twins were born is unravelled seamlessly through flashbacks. The film approaches Lebanon's complex political past through Nawal's experiences, telling a strangely enigmatic story that is personal rather than political.
The tension builds in certain moments, while in others the shock comes without any build up, leaving the viewer breathless. The film does not sugar-coat reality, as every piece that falls into place unleashes one more harsh truth. It is indeed raw but also fascinating and beautiful, with strong images and great cinematic visuals.
This is a story that explores how personal motives breed political radicalism. But ‘Incendies’ is not just about Nawal, it’s also about the twins and their mother’s past. The past is blood, turmoil and grief – yet we move forward.