As a critic, I most prize movies that maintain the element of surprise. Movies that truly surprise you -- both as a story and as an emotional sucker-punch -- are rare and deeply valued.
When I saw it at Sundance in January, Denis Villeneuve's Incendies knocked me for a loop. I've watched it again since, and it remains one of the most powerful and fulfilling films I've seen in a long time. I understand why Susanne Bier's In a Better World won the foreign-language Oscar -- but I believe this was the better film.
Based on a play by Wadji Mouawad, Incendies is a generational drama and a detective story, with the impact of Greek tragedy. And it is built around a towering performance by actress Lubna Azabal (who also showed up in the otherwise tedious Here at Sundance).
Incendies (it translates from French as "scorched" or "burned") begins with the reading of a will: Nawal Marwan (Azabal), secretary to a notary named Lebel (Remy Girard) in Montreal, has died, and her will consists of a message to her twin children Jeanne (Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin) and Simon (Maxim Gaudette). The will contains two sealed envelopes that her children are to deliver, before they can open a final message from her and give her a headstone. One letter is for their father; the other is for their brother.
But as Simon bitterly points out, they have always been told their father was killed in the war in Nawal's home country (which goes unnamed but, given its bitter civil struggle between religious groups on a tribal level, could be Lebanon or a dozen other countries). And they've never been told that they had a brother.
Simon is skeptical; Jeanne, however, travels to her mother's home country to figure out the tangled history her mother's will hints at. At which point Villeneuve jumps back in time to the teenage Nawal Marwan, her lover shot by her brothers in an honor killing, forced to hide the pregnancy and then give away the baby when it comes. She tattoos three dots in a line on her baby's ankle and promises that, one day, she will find him.
She lives her own life, looking when she can for the baby and nearly catching up to him when civil strife breaks out. Nawal simply tries to keep her head down -- but can't stay out of the way of forces greater than herself -- seemingly primal forces, given the sweep of the tragedy they inflict.
"The past is never dead. It's not even past," William Faulkner once said. Or as Paul Thomas Anderson put it in his film, Magnolia, "We may be through with the past, but the past ain't through with us."
Moving through time, with revelations exploding like bombshells in the film's final half hour, Incendies is about confronting that past in order to move onward -- to acknowledge the horror and then disassociate from it.
Azabal is tough and vulnerable, a woman who clings to the little grace she has in her life and tries to shield her kids from her own staggering history. It's a performance of depth and pain.
Desormeaux-Poulin is believable as the mathematician trying to solve the equation of her mother's life. Gaudette plays the less-curious brother who ultimately can't stay out of the solution to the mystery.
Incendies is heavyweight movie-going: rich and deeply well-told, an anti-war story that has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with the human pricetag.
Follow Marshall Fine on Twitter: www.twitter.com/hollywoodnfine