It all starts with a seemingly simple algebra equation where the solution is already identified. The real work is in uncovering the unknown variables and constants, of working out and explaining how one arrives at the final answer. This is the theme essentially informing Denis Villeneuve's ('Maelstrom') latest drama which mixes a self-discovery road-journey with a child's innate desire to learn about his or her parents and ancestry. It's that aspect of the story which makes 'Incendies' universally touching as well as earth-shatteringly heartbreaking. Although it wrongly lost to Scandinavia's equally magnificent 'In a Better World' as Oscar's best foreign film, this Canadian feature remains, for my money, the most powerful and profoundly moving motion picture of the year. It's simply phenomenal.
The entire movie opens with an unsolved equation fraternal twins, Jeanne and Simon (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin and Maxim Gaudette), weren't even aware of. As they listen to their mother's will being read, along with the conversation that takes place outside soon after, it becomes clear that the woman was rather eccentric and possibly even a bit unbalanced. Her incredibly unusual burial request only solidifies our suspicions. She very likely made life difficult for them when they were growing up — Simon does poorly in hiding his resentment. Their mother was better at keeping secrets, which is where the solution to this unexpected equation is revealed. The twins must deliver a pair of letters, one to their once-believed-dead father and the other to a brother they never knew existed.
Thus begins a poignant quest to uncover the unknown variables, where Villeneuve takes this metaphor of problem solving to a powerfully emotional and devastating conclusion. But the son, Simon, does not participate in the first half of the story, which I must say is a very smart move on the part of the filmmakers. In having only Jeanne travel back to her mother's homeland, this voyage into their family's past delivers a greater impact. And the camerawork is a stunningly visual portrait of a child inadvertently reconnecting with her mother, a kind of "rites of passage" tale for Jeanne. Although she's not aware of it, she visits many of the same places where Nawal once trekked for survival, the sites which left the deepest psychological scars.
Audiences, on the other hand, are privileged to this information — the change from variable to constant though the overall explanation to the solution continues to be a mystery. We are allowed to see the appalling events which affected Nawal most, the things which over time consequently led to the person Jeanne and Simon only knew. It's in these flashback scenes where we start piecing things together and think we've come to understand the plot, only to discover at the end how wrong we really are at assuming Nawal's deep sorrows. And it is in these scenes, too, that Belgium-born actress Lubna Azabal provides the year's most crushing performance, communicating years of unjust injury and suffering on her face, eyes, and her overall body-language. A truly remarkable portrayal.
'Incendies' is an astonishing film, one which genuinely deserves more attention from moviegoers and will not disappoint at delivering a powerful conclusion. Based on the novel Scorched by Wajdi Mouawad, director Denis Villeneuve brings an emotionally tense story about siblings understanding their parents by walking in their shoes, seeing life as they did and learning about the person they've become. He blends a straightforward, linear story with art-house flare and flashback sequences that surprisingly work well at engaging viewers onto this emotional journey. 'Incendies' is an enthralling, movingly beautiful, yet ultimately disturbing masterpiece of modern cinema.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment brings 'Incendies' to Blu-ray as a two-disc combo pack inside a blue eco-vortex keepcase. The BD50 disc is Region A locked, and the DVD-9 copy of the movie sits comfortably on an opposing panel. At the start, everything starts with a Blu-ray promo and a series of skippable trailers. Afterwards, we have Sony's standard menu selection with music and full-motion clips in the background.
'Incendies' debuts onto Blu-ray with a terrific AVC-encoded transfer with several moments of sharp, rich clarity detail. Presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, the picture shows excellent definition of the streets in Québec and the vast, arid deserts of Jordan.
Clothes and hair are plainly distinct, and facial complexions, especially in close-up, appear revealing and healthy. Contrast and brightness levels are very well-balanced although blacks lose a bit of their luster in a number of interior scenes. Still, we don't lose visibility of the finer objects in the background, even at night with lots of dark shadows, and the image comes with strong dimensionality throughout. The color palette is slightly subdued, which is fitting to the film's subject matter, but primaries remain accurate and naturally rendered.
The high-def video, overall, is clean and first-rate.
The DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is surprisingly strong for such an emotional drama. Much of its focus is understandably all in the front soundstage where dialogue is precise and intelligible.
The character-driven film feels very spacious and airy, particularly in scenes when Jeanne travels to the Middle East. Channel separation is excellently balanced with convincing off-screen effects, creating a wide image that's quite engaging. Much of the movie is immersed in silence and a natural sense of interior acoustics. So when that stillness is suddenly interrupted by gunfire and explosions delicately filling the rear speakers, listeners are immersed with the sounds of war in the far distance. And one scene of jet fighters flying above is overwhelming and terrifying all at once. The mid-range remains clean and stable through all this with the appropriate, weighty bass response.
Overall, this is a great lossless track for a poignant film centered on a pair of siblings on a journey to uncover their past.
Supplemental features are unfortunately very small, but interesting nonetheless, with the added DVD copy of the film as a bonus.
'Incendies' is an emotionally powerful film with remarkable performances by its cast, a masterpiece of modern cinema. The disturbing drama follows twins on a devastating journey to learn more about their mother's past and uncover a horrifying truth. The Blu-ray features an excellent audio and video presentation, but the bonus collection is terribly small for such a wonderful film. Still, this is a highly recommended release for fans of foreign art-house cinema, while others should put this atop of their list of must-watch movies.