Incendies: Honor Thy Mother, Sure. But Are Some Family Skeletons Better Left Buried?

In Incendies, the darkest secrets of a family and a country are uncovered. It’s a moving, nicely paced tale worthy of its Academy Award nomination as last year’s Best Foreign Language Film. I only wish director Denis Villeneuve had employed a bit more subtlety in his choices, so that the film’s final, shocking revelation felt less calculated.

The movie begins brilliantly, thanks largely to the soundtrack’s use of Radiohead’s “You and Whose Army.” As the mournful echoes and calibrated distortions of Thom Yorke’s vocals play, we see a crowd of young boys dressed in rags, waiting in turn for their heads to be shaved. The camera comes to settle upon one boy in particular, pushing in for a close-up of his inscrutable face. It’s a powerful scene-setter that establishes perhaps too high a standard for all that follows.

After leaving the haunting face of that boy, we’re taken to the office of a middle-aged notary named Jean (Rémy Girard), in Quebec. He’s charged with executing the will of his longtime secretary, Nawal (Lubna Azabal), and has brought her twin grown children, Simon (Maxim Gaudette) and Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin), to hear it read.

Simon and Jeanne are soon shocked to learn that their father, whom they’ve believed was long dead, is alive and that they have a brother. Their mother has written letters for both the father and the brother and instructs the twins to deliver the sealed messages to their long-lost family members. They are forbidden from placing a tombstone on her grave until they’ve complied with her wishes.

Simon is furious that it seems as though their mother is playing a twisted game with them, and he refuses to take part. Jeanne, feeling guilty about not being around during her mother’s final days, travels to her ancestral homeland (a Middle Eastern country that remains unnamed but strongly resembles Lebanon) to find her father and brother with few clues as to their whereabouts.

The film then alternates between scenes of Jeanne’s journey and a flashback to her mother’s youth. There’s dramatic resonance as we view the ordeals of Nadal’s young adulthood and watch Jeanne trek through the same locations.

Eventually Simon relents and joins Jeanne in the search. Slowly they, and we, learn about their mother’s troubled past as she was drawn into the sectarian violence of her country’s civil war. I’ll say no more about what they discover, except that I didn’t see the film’s climactic revelation coming.

It’s a gut punch to the characters, but I didn’t feel its full impact. Somewhere between the use of self-consciously modern huge red titles that fill the screen to separate chapters of the story, and some overtly metaphorical dialogue about mathematics, I couldn’t forget that I was watching a movie.

So I wasn’t appreciating the grand tragedy of it all. My mind was too busy trying to decide whether I believed the plot’s more unlikely elements. I could have used another dose of Radiohead to get me out of my logic and back to my empathy.

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