The new French-Canadian film Incendies, from the young director Denis Villeneuve, opens with two attention-grabbing scenes: First, there's a haunting opening-credit sequence in which we see what appears to be an orphanage somewhere in the Middle East, as a group of angry, battered young boys have their heads shaved. What's going to become of these orphans, we wonder.
But in retrospect, the scene is pushed too far and too insistently. It's scored to an old Radiohead song, "You and Whose Army?," and as Thom Yorke's voice escalates to keening volume, the camera dollies into an extreme close-up of a glowering young boy. We're in his face—and with this shot, Villeneuve's film is in our face. It's too much, too soon, too obvious.
But then there's a scene on a different continent, which immediately follows: We're in present-day Canada, in the drab office of Jean Lebel, a notary (played by Quebecois stalwart Rémy Girard). He's summoned Simon and Jeanne Marwan, twin siblings, to his office to hear the last will and testament of Nawal, their late mother. Nawal's instructions are shocking and cold: "Bury me with no casket, no prayers, naked, facedown, away from the world," her instructions read. "I want no gravestone, nor my name engraved anywhere. No epitaph for those who don't keep their promises."
Each child is given a letter to deliver. The more thoughtful Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) is instructed to find their father, while the embittered Simon (Maxim Gaudette) is told to find their brother and deliver the second letter. The children may mark her grave only when those two tasks have been accomplished. But there's a problem: Their father is supposedly dead, and they have never been told of this second brother's existence.
The subsequent events of the film take place in two alternating time periods. We retrace Nawal's life as a young woman in the 1970s, when she conceived her children amid incredibly harsh circumstances, and we also follow the progress of Jeanne and Simon as they try to unravel their mother's past in honoring her last wishes. We quickly learn a couple of things about Nawal: She grew up a Christian in the Middle East, living in "the South" of an unnamed country, and the lover of her youth, by whom she became pregnant, was a foreigner living in a nearby refugee camp. Nawal's life from this point forward is a litany of pain, beginning when her brother, enraged by the stain on the family honor, kills her lover as they attempt to elope. Nawal then gives up her child for adoption and moves to the big city (evidently Beirut) to attend university. Several years later, with war boiling over in the country, Nawal returns to the South to search for her child, thus setting off a horrific chain of events.
Despite the Middle Eastern setting, the film, which is adapted from a stage play by the Lebanese-born Canadian playwright Wajdi Mouawad, is really a family mystery, and therein lies a problem. For anyone with a passing knowledge of Middle Eastern history in the 1970s and '80s, the setting is clearly Lebanon, at a time when Palestinian refugee camps were set up in the South, near Israel. (Nawal would then seem to be a Lebanese Christian and her lover a Palestinian—and likely Muslim—refugee.) Years of hideous fighting followed among the PLO, Hezbollah, Amal, Phalangists, Syria and Israel.
This history has been the subject of more than one film in recent years, including Ari Folman's exceptional Waltz With Bashir. But Folman's film didn't shy away from naming the actual historical places and events, and it was a more powerful film for it. The same atrocity that animated Waltz With Bashir, the Israel-condoned annihilation of the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps by the Lebanese Phalangists, becomes fictionalized under a different name in Incendies, while the word "Israel" goes unmentioned. In the film, the atrocity is simply a paroxysm of irrational religious hatred between Christians, Muslims and their respective warlords.
It may well be that Mouawad feels that his story is universal and doesn't need to be put in a historical pigeonhole; in fairness, I suspect the vagueness of his details works better on stage than on screen. It's also true that the recent (and better) Of Gods and Men also avoided making explicit references to its obvious origins in 1990s Algeria, but that movie had a much simpler moral conflict. Here, we're often puzzled by the motives of the belligerents, yet it won't do to reduce the conflicts to simple hatred between Christians and Muslims when we can see that the film is clearly inspired by a far more complex set of events.
All reservations aside, however, Incendies (which translates as "scorched") is an intense and absorbing drama. As Nawal, the Belgian actress Lubna Azabal (whose credits include a lead role in Hany Abu-Assad's Paradise Now) gives a powerful performance as a kind of vessel of human suffering—Nawal's life includes a political assassination, imprisonment, torture and the loss of children and lovers. If the film's stagy plot finally falters, relying on tidy closure and amazing coincidences that experienced movie watchers will anticipate well in advance, we're still left sobered by the suffering some people endure. No wonder Nawal wanted to be buried facedown, away from the world.