The opening scene of this fierce and harrowing French Canadian film is scored by the Radiohead song You and Whose Army?, the explosive ballad playing as a group of young boys, somewhere in the Middle East, line up to have their heads shaved in some sort of recruiting ritual.
The question asked by the song title still hangs in the air after the music has subsided - it's never actually stated in which country Incendies takes place (though it's clearly based on Lebanon's Muslim-Christian civil war) or on whose side the youngsters will be fighting.
It's a powerful start to a film that was a nominee for the best foreign language film Oscar earlier this year with director Villeneuve having adapted the monologue-driven play by Wajdi Mouaad into a visually striking grand mystery of dark family secrets.
But though the film has lost any sign of its theatrical origins, along the way it's gained something almost operatic in its melodrama. It's a story ultimately relying on the cryptic and contrived, while making some familiar points about how violence begets violence and that the psychological damage of war can be passed from one generation to the next.
AdvertisementAdvertise with NZME.
The mystery begins when twentysomething Montreal twins Jeanne (Desormeaux-Poulin) and Simon (Gaudette) attend the reading of the will left by their mother Nawal Marwan (Azabal, pictured) about whose life before settling in Canada the pair have been told very little.
She has left them sealed letters she wants delivered to a half-brother they never knew about and a father they thought was long dead, which involves the pair travelling to the Middle East to find them.
Meanwhile, the earlier timeline shows the agonies of Nawal's earlier life. That includes her survival of an attack on a bus by Christian militia which is certainly a vivid depiction of the horrors of a war, with further traumas to come.
But as powerful as moments like that are, and as gripping as the central performance of Azabal is, Incendies still feels like a film that is an overwrought exercise of narrative sleight-of-hand.
It's not without emotional punch, especially in its final reels, but it's undercut by the melodramatic contrivances which get us there.
Cast: Lubna Azabal, Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin, Maxim Gaudette
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Rating: R16 (violence and content may disturb)
Running time: 130 mins
Verdict: Powerful but uneven Middle East family saga.