Jumping between the present day and the Lebananon-set wars of the 70s, Incendies opens with brother and sister Simon and Jeanne Marwan receiving letters as part of their mother Nawal's (Lubna Azabal) will. The letters reveal a mission of sorts. They are to track down a father who they thought was dead, and a brother whose existence they've been ignorant of until now. Simon (Maxim Gaudette) has no desire to retrace his mother's past, leaving Jeanne (Melissa Poulin) to piece together a painful history by herself. As she begins her search in Lebanon, we see Nawal's devastating story unfold.
The film's title, when translated to English, roughly equates to 'scorched,' which is appropriate on several levels. But as a family drama/mystery, Incendies is very much a slow-burning story. Pacing is elegant and methodical, though never sluggish, and jumps between and among time periods and locations are handled efficiently, with bright red labels dividing the film based on characters or locations. As adapted from Wadji Mouawad's play by director Denis Villeneuve, the film sets its sights on communicating the lives of many by examining the lives of a few, and in this, it's a success. The wars in Lebanon, between right-wing Christian nationalists and Muslim refugees, destroyed many lives, and left scars on countless others. Villeneuve's mix of wide shots amid the scenes of searching, violence, and horror helps establish that the atrocities faced along the way were not limited to just a few. This is a stark film, one that is about excruciating pain, yet avoids countless opportunities to descend into overwrought, manipulative misery-porn.
As a commentary on the horrors of ethnic and religious violence, Incendies' somewhat exhausting story certainly leaves a harsh impact. However, the film's initial momentum, so elegant in its dispensation of information, starts to wear off. Throughout the first hour, maybe more, the images carry the movie, revealing horrible events both to us, and to the modern segment of the story. As it progresses, however, Incendies falls into the trap of telling instead of showing. Suddenly, we're given the present, the past, and characters in the present yapping about what happened in the past. The reintroduction of Simon later in the film only throws things further off balance. For a film that repeatedly references mathematics and equations, Incendies increasingly loses precision, made worse by how effective it is for the first half.
Upsetting the equation even further are two twists, doled out in relatively close proximity to each other. The first is acceptable. It acts as a perfectly horrid revelation that helps shed light on why Nawal kept the secret until her death. That Villeneuve feels the need to relay it to one character via mathematical dialogue is slightly less satisfying, and results in a gasp of shock that borders on funny. Unfortunately, a second arrives, and it's intimately linked to the first. In conjunction with each other, they threaten to send the film flying into soap opera territory. Villeneuve and his actors handle these twists well (aside from the aforementioned gasp), thankfully, and lend a sense of gritty naturalism to moments that should feel grossly out of place. Yet they still don't quite fit into the overall flow. The story is more than compelling enough as is, yet it begins to feel less like a natural progression of events, and more like a series of events built solely to culminate in horrific (not to mention Oedipal) shocks.
This leaves Incendies in a tricky place. It certainly has its merits, from the bare photography to the generally restrained performances. Azabal's work as the emotionally scarred Nawal is the most effective, seeing as this is more or less her story. We only see Jeanne and Simon develop as it relates to discovering their mother's past, and that development feels, at best, rather hollow. A third character (who I can't reveal) is also a potential goldmine for emotional exploration, but is reduced to little more than a bringer of trauma and a plot point. Like a busboy trying to balance too many plates, the increasing scope of the script begins to overwhelm the movie to the point where it becomes an unwieldy burden. And though the film's methodical pacing isn't an issue on its own, the overall running time left me ready for a denouement at several points before the final fade to black. As a work that wants to examine the broader consequences of religious and ethnic (and even gender) violence with a mix of the intimate and epic, Incendies certainly does scorch some images into your mind. The problem is simply that it doesn't know when to quit the deluge of misery in its quest to become some sort of modern Greek tragedy.