Now this is how you adapt a play for the screen: not by opening up the action in extraneous, travelogue-minded ways, but by burrowing so deeply into the characters’ psyches that their discoveries become your own.
The source material is the 2003 play “Scorched” by Wajdi Mouawad, a Lebanese-born theater artist who immigrated to Canada and then Montreal. Brilliantly adapted, it has become the Oscar-nominated drama “Incendies” by writer-director Denis Villeneuve.
Both play and movie owe a debt to the Sophoclean tragedy “Oedipus Rex.” It’s a testament to the effectiveness of Mouawad’s story, taking place in a Montreal-like city as well as an unnamed Middle Eastern country resembling Lebanon, that once you’re hit with its enormous, logic-stretching revelation you’re emotionally prepared to follow these people anywhere.
It begins simply, with a meeting of siblings. Grown twins Jeanne and Simon are told by a notary that their late mother’s will requires them to deliver two sealed and utterly mysterious envelopes, one to their father (presumed dead but very much alive), the other to a brother they didn’t realize existed.
This requires a trip to the homeland of their mother, Nawal, whose early life was never much discussed. “Incendies” gradually illustrates the reasons, weaving an intricate web of flashbacks, revealing more and more about Nawal’s early pregnancy, her promise to track down her lost son, her involvement in one corner of her country’s latest civil war.
There is only one way Nawal’s children can learn enough to become whole beings: by digging further and further back into the past.
As Jeanne, the haunting Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin is an ideal audience-identification figure; even when the narrative events practically goad the performers into overstatement, she’s there, quietly holding back enough to pull us forward into every scene to which her character pays witness.
Nawal is portrayed by Lubna Azabal, who conceals so much behind war-ravaged eyes, she rivets the attention even without saying a word.
As a 6-year-old boy, playwright Mouawad witnessed a brutal attack by Christian militiamen on a bus carrying unarmed Palestinians outside Beirut, in retaliation for the unprovoked killing of a Christian outside a church. The revenge slaughter ignited a full-scale war.
In “Incendies,” a variation on this horrific scene becomes a piece of Nawal’s puzzle. Every detail in the scene, as arranged and framed by Villeneuve (including the selectively unrealistic use of sound), adds to the impact without cheapening the visceral effect.
Human beings do things like this every day, somewhere. Not monsters. Men.
The original play runs three hours, and its English-language version often groans under the weight of its brand of poetic language.
The movie, nearly an hour shorter, moves like water and uses only as many words as needed to keep us oriented (some of the past/present jumps risk confusion) and ever-more compelled by Nawal’s destiny.
The opening shot of “Incendies” shows a group of boys getting their heads shaved, presumably by those training them for a life of terrorism. One boy’s eyes, fixed on the camera, are not easy to forget. Nothing in this remarkable drama is.