A radical reimagining of Wajdi Mouawad’s play, “Incendies” strips away the Lebanon-born writer’s long, poetic monologues to reveal a spare, slow-burn detective story whose secrets involve terrorism, rape and genocide in a fictional Middle Eastern country — an intriguing counterpoint to Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” that mixes compelling thriller elements with pointed political commentary. Call it “The Boy With the Boot-Heel Tattoo,” as Canadian twins seek out a long-lost sibling, identifiable only by three black dots on his foot. With fest acclaim conferring must-see arthouse status, “Incendies” vaults Denis Villeneuve to the status of serious director.
The original play, whose title translates as “Scorched,” tells of a land destroyed by violence and retribution. Though not set in Lebanon per se, the incidents were inspired by that country’s 15-year civil war, which raged until 1990. Brother-sister twins Jeanne (Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin) and Simon (Maxim Gaudette) escaped that reality when their mother Nawal Marwan (Lubna Azabal) relocated them from the allegorical nation of Fuad to Montreal, but they never spoke of the past and therefore never realized the extent of their mother’s involvement in the conflict.
Called before a notary for the reading of Nawal’s will, the twins are shocked by their mother’s final request: For Jeanne, she leaves a sealed envelope addressed to the children’s father, upsetting their impression that he died a heroic death; for Simon, she leaves a second sealed letter, this one intended for a brother they didn’t know they had.
Jeanne, the logical one, travels to Fuad to honor her mother’s wish. Simon remains resentful and opts to stay behind.
While Jeanne’s investigation moves forward in a linear fashion, the film jumps back and forth in time, peeling back layers to reveal the larger mystery of Nawal’s past and the children’s origins. Though it will take Jeanne longer to put the pieces together, we discover almost immediately that the man they’d been told was their — a Muslim refugee reviled by Nawal’s Christian siblings — father had actually sired not them, but their older brother, tattooed before being given up for adoption so that Nawal might one day recognize him again. Who, then, is Jeanne and Simon’s father?
Flashing back to breakout of war, Nawal sets out to find her lost son, eventually volunteering her services to aid the Muslim militia — a decision that lands her in prison, where she becomes known as “the woman who sings.” Of course, Jeanne is shocked to discover this chapter in her mother’s life, calling Simon down to help her locate their missing sibling.
With her look of soulful intelligence, actress Desormeaux-Poulin lends a quiet dignity to the procedural, present-day scenes, but it is Azabal’s embodiment of Nawal, a woman who has endured a lifetime of hardship that enthralls, her impressive perf spanning mid-teens to old age. Villeneuve advances the story quite slowly at first, and yet, however challenging the pace, it feels as if some critical detail might escape if one so much as blinks.
As stage-to-screen adaptations go, “Incendies” reps an unusually bold departure, transforming from its talky original form to a more purely cinematic presentation. Whereas language supplied the lifeblood of the original play, here, Villeneuve excises entire blocks of text, reducing speeches to mere sentences while seeking the most potent visual equivalent for each scene — such as Nawal’s bus ride to Daresh, alluded to in the play and now a proper heart-stopping setpiece, or the sight of a teenage sniper shooting children in the streets.
Rather than coming right out and stating that violence begets violence, Villeneuve’s approach invites the audience to find its own words. Some may see this as a failing, silencing everything the play had to say, and yet it’s remarkable how effectively these scenes serve Mouawad’s central themes.
Despite the film’s deceptively realistic feel (with most of the Fuad sequences shot in Jordan), “Incendies” remains fundamentally didactic, particularly in its stunning final revelations. In the end, something doesn’t quite add up in the ages, dates and other details, including the coincidence that allows Nawal to write both letters, but by that point, this emotional firecracker has built to such a powerful place, it’s too late to object.