Nominated for this year’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, the French-Canadian drama Incendies is portentous to the point of absurdity, its somber melodrama overpowering any potentially valuable statements about cultural identity or familial legacy. Adapted from a play by Wajdi Mouawad, Incendies begins with twins Simon (Maxim Gaudette) and Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) learning of their mother Nawal’s last wishes via a strange will she has entrusted to her former boss. Nawal (Lubna Azabal) insists on being buried naked in an unmarked grave, and then sets her children on the equivalent of a grief scavenger hunt, charging them to find their previously unknown brother and presumed-dead father, and deliver hand-written letters to each.
Simon at first scoffs at his mother’s bizarre commands, but Jeanne travels to the unnamed Middle Eastern country (which shares many similarities with Lebanon) where Nawal was born, trying to piece together the mysteries of her mother’s life. Writer-director Denis Villeneuve cuts back and forth between Jeanne’s quest and Nawal’s past, which includes rape, torture and imprisonment during the country’s tumultuous period of sectarian violence. The misery piled on Nawal goes from affecting and sad to laughably contrived, building to several ludicrously soap-operatic plot twists. With the details of the country and the conflict kept deliberately vague, it’s hard to glean any meaningful social or political commentary from Incendies, and the supposedly devastating revelations toward the end of the film are both annoyingly predictable and disappointingly hollow. Instead of finding resonance between personal and political tragedy, the film only succeeds in cheapening both.