Nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar, Incendies is an unequivocal marvel. Like the consuming flame suggested by its title, Incendies (Scorched) is a harrowing event. Adapted from the acclaimed play by Wajdi Mouawad, director Denis Villeneuve magically mixes myriad details of plot, emotion and metaphorical nuance, his corresponding film evokes such startling honesty and raw humanity as only the best art can convey. Even Incendies’ thematic mix enthrals: part detective story, part political thriller and part civil war investigation, the film distils these grandest of elements into the most personal of journeys. To dub this experience a triumph of the spirit may be a cliché but it is nonetheless the film’s badge of honor.
A dead mother issues a posthumous request in the form of two letters which must be delivered. A set of twins, brother and sister, embark on a journey to uncover the cryptic truth beneath this far-from-simple charge: they must find a brother they never knew existed and a father whom they assumed no longer did. In their quest for their kin, their expedition leads them to a nameless Middle Eastern country, which only a couple of decades before was fractured by civil war. The path to the answer to any query about this past is now a twisted one. In fact it’s an enigma, one that unleashes a string of fragile connections that lead not only to the answers they seek but also to vital revelations about their mother, themselves and the identities they must find. Their mother’s secrets slowly disentangle in the process: this mild mannered secretary was not at all whom she seemed.
Plotlines conjoin and converge to mix past, present and future while the brutally violent backdrop invades and envelops. This wider nameless Middle Eastern conflict shatters family connections even as it connects, and it mercilessly invades personal history to indelibly scar a woman and her innocent family.
As much as director Villeneuve likes to explore extremes in his work, this is the film in which everything meshes. Light clashes with dark as the desert sun blinds; dirty jail cells meld with stark bleached landscapes and Villeneuve’s signature roaming, often thrashing, camera movement reveals pure emotional truth as it often strays alarmingly close to its subjects. Contrasting this is the staccato rhythm of overly long shots which, together, create the perfect balance between poetry and realism. It is only this type of combination that can capture the unbelievable scope of this story.
This is why Villeneuve’s strategy is vital to the success of this film. As Incendies flows seamlessly between past and present, it unravels mysteries that compounds into one and split again. This is a central dramatic hinge that takes on eerie dramatic dimensions.
It’s what remains after the conflict that is crucial here. Anchoring these wildly contrasting concerns in a final message of forgiveness and reconciliation, Villeneuve creates a poetic vision that surpasses all strides of the familiar time travelling trope. This film unsettles as much as it transcends.