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In this Canadian film that was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar last year, director Denis Villeneuve has carefully worked to assemble visual and audio details that will contribute to striking and evocative settings to draw audiences into his complex international narrative. But that story, and most of its central and subsidiary characters, have been conceived and portrayed in such unpersuasively exaggerated terms that the sympathetic identification Villeneuve and his film are apparently trying to encourage is thwarted. So is the moral insight he’s tried to convey.

Adapted by Villeneuve from a play by Lebanese-born Montreal writer Wajdi Mouawad, Incendies (“conflagration” in French) depicts a quest by twins, a brother and sister, to find a long-lost father and previously unknown brother in the strife-torn Middle East. Their mother Nawal (Lubna Azabal), recently deceased as the film opens, has left them instructions to do this. Simon (Maxim Gaudette) is at first disdainful and uncooperative, but his sister Jeanne (Melissa Désormeaux-Pouln) accepts the charge and heads for their parents’ unidentified Middle East homeland, a country that’s suspiciously like Lebanon.

There she encounters serious difficulties produced by years of military and political tumult and horror, and by long-lived ethnic divisions and hatreds. Intercut with her difficult search are flashbacks relating events in her mother’s turbulent and sometimes terrifying early life.

Incendies is a slowly unfolding mystery, a twin-level odyssey, and a moral fable within a political milieu. But that determinedly obscure milieu gives it a frustratingly unmoored quality—even as some of its scenes seem to allude to events in Lebanon over the last 40 years. These events occur in imaginary cities, and involve antagonists in a brutal civil war that are never specified beyond Christian/not-Christian designations. (Israel is named, but there’s no admission that an “invasion” referred to is that nation’s massively disastrous 1982 invasion of Lebanon.) Even more damaging to Villeneuve’s aims are the very sharply exaggerated narrative elements he relies upon. From its start, Incendies is arbitrarily overdrawn. The film soon acquires a strange, sensationalistic, almost gothic quality that moves still further from a real-world realm, one on which Villeneuve is implicitly commenting. His film doesn’t make enough sense, even on its own terms, to be effective.

george sax

Watch the trailer for Incendies

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