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Nominated at this year’s Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film, the Québecois film Incendies—written for the screen and directed by Denis Villeneuve—finally opens in Melbourne this Thursday. It may have taken a criminally long time to amble to our antipodean shores (it actually premiered at last year’s Venice and Toronto film festivals) but holy hell is it worth the wait. Incendies is the kind of film that leaves you stuck in your seat for minutes afterwards, eyes glazed and slack-jawed.

Its premise is deceptively simple and instantly ensnaring. Adapted from Wadji Mouawad’s hit play, it follows the fallout of a Middle-Eastern immigrant’s death in her adopted home of Canada. Beginning with the reading of a will, Incendies’ foundation is the two shocking secrets revealed to her twin adult children: 1) Their father (presumed dead) is actually alive, and 2) they have a brother they never knew existed.

The twins are each presented with a sealed envelope, one addressed to the father and one to the brother. Their mother’s dying wish is for them to each locate their assigned, newly revealed family member and deliver to them their respective letter. From here Incendies intricately weaves together the parallel stories of the mother’s secretive Middle-Eastern past and the contemporary repercussions for her children as they struggle to uncover one savage truth after another.

Incendies (translated to English in the case of the play as “Scorched”) is—as the name suggests—a violently consuming film. As mesmeric as it is disturbing, Incendies sets its sights squarely on the darkest parts of humanity and has the courage to never once blink in the face of its horrors. “[I had] the same impression as when I first saw Apocalypse Now—astonished,” says director Villeneuve of his reaction to Mouawad’s play. “The script was like a punch in the jaw and I emerged from the theatre on shaky knees. Right away I knew I was going to make it into a movie.”

Such is its potential for interpretation that it’s excruciatingly frustrating not to address any of Incendies’ revelations in this review. Nonetheless, the limitation must be strictly observed—to even hint at its specifics would constitute something like a perverse act of experiential theft, and I’m not into stuff like that. What I can say, however, is that Incendies successfully explores horrific subject matter that a lesser hand could easily trivialise into melodramatic sludge. Villeneuve somehow pulls off a double-whammy: maintaining a sober, unflinching realism of delivery while successfully incorporating a sort of mythological weight.

In the end, Incendies—despite its appearance as a very personal drama—manages to explode from the constraints of narrow particularity into the realm of the universal and leave your reeling in its wake. It might not be one to watch hung-over on a Sunday afternoon, but if you’re in the mood for some existential dread-ish, world-view-changing, what-does-it-all-mean type of thing, this film is an absolute cracker.

5/5 exploded psyches.

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