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Directed by Denis Villeneuve

Opens June 3 at the Charles Theatre

Read an interview with director Denis Villeneuve

Her entire world changes in one drawn breath. Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) sits next to her brother Simon (Maxim Gaudette) on a bed in a hotel room in the Middle East. They’ve ended up there thanks to two letters written by their mother Nawal (Lubna Azabal) before she died. Jeanne, the mathematician, acts first, leaving Montreal, to which their mother immigrated and where they grew up, to travel back to Nawal’s homeland in the Middle East, where she, a Christian, had the misfortune to fall in love with a Muslim. Simon and Jeanne had never known much about their mother’s life, but they’re going to find out thanks to instructions left in those letters: One is to search for their brother; the other is to search for their father. And now, toward the movie’s end, they’re both close to finding what they’re looking for; it’s just not going to be easy. Simon cryptically tells Jeanne what he’s discovered as she searches his face to try and understand what he’s saying. And then, in an agonizing instant, she understands—and her gasp is one of the most unpleasant moments in a movie that piles inhuman actions one atop another.

It’s a scene that perfectly captures the devastating calm that permeates French Canadian director Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Wajdi Mouawad’s 2003 play. Incendies is a very familiar tale of how warring times turn people into monsters, but at its core it’s merely a portrait of Nawal, the woman who fell in love with the wrong person and how that simple human act rippled throughout her life as wars started, as Christian turned against Muslim, as revolutionary fervor broke out among both groups and ravaged its way through her country, and as men turned to very old cruelties to deal with women radicalized by belief and motherly instincts. Nawal’s star-crossed romance produced a son, a child she was forced to give up to an orphanage, an orphanage feared destroyed during skirmishes of ethnic cleansing and filled with motherless sons easily turned into soldiers of the cause.

Villeneuve deals out this story like a skilled croupier, turning over moments in Jeanne and Simon’s present-day Montreal lives before flashing back to Nawal as a young woman, Nawal as a college student, Nawal as a covert triggerman, Nawal as the defiant political prisoner who finds her own way to deal with torture and much, much worse. Nawal’s story gets intertwined with Jeanne’s journey as she retraces her mother’s steps through the Middle East, where Simon eventually comes to join her. They never asked to know what they find out—Simon, in fact, actively derides the letters as another instance of their mother’s erratic behavior. Getting the faintest view of their mother’s complicated, tragic, and at times heroic life, however, offers them glimmers of understanding into the woman they knew that they never would have gained otherwise. They merely have to work for it, and it’s harder than either Jeanne or Simon could have ever surmised.

Fortunately, Villeneuve gamely structures his crosscutting stories, which gain a sometimes lyrical momentum. And it’s a cinematic touch the director announces from his very first shot: Some young Middle Eastern boys line up to get their heads shaved as Radiohead’s “You and Whose Army?” plays on the soundtrack, and finishes in a slow zoom into a tight shot of one young boy’s cold stare. It’s an inscrutably arresting moment that immediately draws you into the movie’s world; better still, by the time it makes sense within the context of the movie, this already potent opening scene casts a haunting shadow over the entire film.

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