The thriller “Incendies,” a 2010 Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Film, is a Canadian production (directed by Dennis Villeneuve) spoken in French about events that took place, fictionally speaking, in Lebanon during its infamous civil war.
The death of Canadian immigrant with a secret past, Nawal Marwan (Lubna Azabal), places the burden of discovery on her twin children. The daughter, Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin), is a graduate student in mathematics at a Canadian university. The son, Simon (Maxim Gaudette), has idled his life while taking care of their sickened and peculiar mom.
In her will, the mother leaves the children two envelopes to deliver before they can bury her. One goes to a brother they never knew they had, who is lost in Lebanon. The other is to the father they never knew. Soon the journey leads Jeanne to Lebanon, where she negotiates the landscape and her murky family history.
From there, “Incendies” gradually unravels the mother’s trying path through Lebanon’s years of Muslim-Christian strife. In depicting this time, the film spares few brutal details. The one that stands out most is a massacre of a busload of Muslims by Christian militiamen. The doomed passengers are first treated to a hail of bullets and then set on fire. Only a cross on a necklace saves the woman from being burned alive.
“Incendies” resembles the noble tradition of politically-aware films of the 70s and 80s, where outsiders must travel into the dangerous centers of international strife on a personal mission. Think “Missing” or “The Killing Fields.” Even think the soap opera of “The Year of Living Dangerously.” But “Incendies” feels more gripping and real. The style director Denis Villaneuve carries that dusty, gritty verisimilitude achieved so often in modern international cinema. He tosses in an eerie Radiohead track from time to time to relieve that claustrophobia.
The film, based on an acclaimed 2003 play by Wajdi Mouawad, reaches for a shock ending that feels like it might work better on stage. Whether or not that’s true, it doesn’t work for the film. Until that moment, “Incendies” is an intriguing and realistic journey through a time and a life.