- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 19, 2011

“Incendies” is shot through with elements of foreshadowing but none so subtle or elegant as a passing reference to the Collatz conjecture - the mathematical theorem that posits that any number can be reduced eventually to a value of one by the sequential application of one of two operations, depending on whether the number is even or odd. This property of “oneness” is a hidden metaphor for the horror at the heart of the film.

Jeanne Marwan (Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin) is a college mathematics instructor in Montreal. She and her twin brother, Simon (Maxim Gaudette) are called to the office of their recently deceased mother’s employer for the reading of her rather unusual will. Nawal Marwan (Lubna Azabal) was determined that her children travel to the country of their birth - fictionalized but clearly intended to be Lebanon - to locate their father and their brother and deliver a letter to each.

The journey puts Jeanne and Simon on a collision course with history: the history of Lebanon’s 15-year-long civil war, and their mother’s harrowing personal story, largely unknown to them. Nawal grew up in an isolated and very traditional Christian village. Two male relatives murder her lover in an honor killing after finding them trysting together. It emerges that Nawal is pregnant, but when her son is born, he is sent away to an orphanage by her grandmother, while Nawal is sent to a nearby city to study. There she becomes politically active, at first supporting a nationalist faction but then turning against that cause after she is nearly killed in a massacre of Muslims with whom she is traveling in an effort to track down her son.

Nawal’s story emerges in a series of flashbacks set against her children’s present-day quest. Shot in Jordan, the craggy landscape has an eternal feel, and it is often a tiny visual cue like a pair of iPod headphones or a mobile phone that indicates whether the action is taking place in the present or in the past. The flashbacks don’t conform to any particular chronology - but a few that are conspicuously out of sequence offer enticing hints that a viewer can piece together only once the puzzle is complete.


Jeanne takes a mathematical approach to excavating her mother’s life. Armed with nothing but an old photograph, she tracks Nawal’s path from her brief stint at a university to a militia prison where she was held. Visiting Nawal’s birthplace, Jeanne finds a frosty greeting from villagers still scandalized by the out-of-wedlock birth. Initially reluctant to participate, Simon eventually joins in the search as the truth materializes from the haze of a turbulent past.

There are no partisan politics in “Incendies,” which was nominated for the Academy Award for best foreign-language film in 2010. By not even naming Lebanon as the setting, the movie sidesteps the complex web of alliances (not all based on religious affiliation) that drove the conflict. Instead, director Denis Villeneuve focuses on the sheer murderousness of the conflict and the mathematical certitude with which violence begets violence.

★★★

TITLE: “Incendies” (in French with English subtitles)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Denis Villeneuve. Based on a play by Wajdi Mouawad

RATING: R for violence and some strong language

RUNNING TIME: 130 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS