In the overture to Incendies, a group of small boys have most of their hair shaved off by soldiers. The boys are bloodied and bruised — some sort of attack has plainly just happened. The music underscoring this is Radiohead's sad, slurred, "You And Whose Army?," and one boy, who has three vertical dots tattooed on the back of his foot, stares into the camera with a look of monstrous hate — a stare that eats into the mind. It's not until the end of the film that you understand the full implications of that stare — what led up to it, and what happened afterward. When you do, it hits you like a blow.
Incendies is a detective story, a tantalizing puzzle movie. It's set in Quebec and in an unnamed Middle Eastern country that is pretty clearly Lebanon. A pair of twins in their 20s — Jeanne and her strangely hostile brother, Simon — attend the reading of their late mother's will, which instructs them to locate a father they thought had died decades earlier and a brother they never knew existed.
And as they embark on what amounts to a grim scavenger hunt, there are flashbacks of their mother, Nawal, a Christian woman who's disgraced when she falls in love with a Muslim refugee, whom her brothers promptly murder.
Nawal has a baby that is taken away, and then her grandmother sends her off to a university in a distant city. But civil war breaks out, Nawal careens from bloody horror to bloody horror, as right-wing Christian militias massacre Muslims and Muslims massacre Christians right back.
Because Simon found his mother distant and unreliable, it's Jeanne, a graduate student who teaches "pure mathematics" in Montreal, who travels to the Middle East and learns about the mother she only thought she knew. There is one thunderous revelation after another, a snarl of atrocities and assassinations.
You'd never guess Incendies is based on a play by Quebec writer Wajdi Mouawad, who fled a war-ravaged Lebanon for France when he was 8. Director Denis Villeneuve has made it breathe onscreen, so that you feel as if you're moving with the characters through a maze — sometimes literally, as when Simon finally comes to the Mideast and visits a makeshift refugee village in search of the Muslim warlord who can provide the final piece of the puzzle.
As the mother, the actress Lubna Azabal is riveting. You see Nawal bludgeoned over and over, literally and figuratively, until she has wept all she can weep and tries to force herself to show nothing — a doomed enterprise. The film is full of terrible incidents, including the murders of children. But Villeneuve's handling isn't cheap or exploitive. I could never watch certain sequences again, but I understood as I watched why I needed to see them.
Without giving anything away, I'll tell you that the final revelation, which comes in the last 10 minutes, is preposterous. It's where you do see Incendies' theatrical origins. It's not stagebound, but it's heavily symbolic, and what has seemed until now a fairly realistic movie becomes a myth — a lament for a culture in which families are perverted by what one character calls "the merciless logic of reprisals." The first two hours of Incendies don't quite gel with the last 10 minutes, but this remains an extraordinary piece of storytelling, a diagram of the chain of human suffering with a hellish sting in its tail. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.