Lebanese-Canadian Nawal Marwan (Lubna Azabal) has passed away. She was at the swimming pool, started staring off into space, and then slowly faded away in the hospital. She has left behind her twins, Jeanne and Simon, who are in their early ‘20s. To them, their mother was a secretary to a local notary, liked to swim, and that is all. Their mother does not have a past, at least not one which she ever brings up in conversation. There is no father in the picture and the twins assume he died back in Lebanon during the war.
At the reading of Nawal’s will, the twins receive startling news. Their mother has left instructions for them to deliver two letters, one to their father and one to their brother, relations which they know nothing about. The twins take the newfound discovery in completely different ways. Jeanne (Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin) accepts what her mother wants her to do and takes off for Lebanon, a place that is familiar to her only from textbooks. Her brother, Simon (Maxim Gaudette), refuses to have any part of this nonsense and wants to stay out of the affair altogether. For Simon, his mom may have had some alternate, hidden past, but that was not who she was to him. She was a Canadian secretary, not some Lebanese village girl.
I will reveal absolutely nothing about what comes next, that is for the audience to discover right along with Jeanne. As Jeanne slowly pieces together the facts of her mother’s previous life in Lebanon, the film cuts to Nawal in the past and shows her experiences firsthand. The children start the plot of Incendies; however, Nawal gets most of the screen time. Furthermore, the film does not take time to explain what the war in early 1970s Lebanon was all about. It assumes the audience is familiar with the right-wing Christian militias and the Palestinian refugee camps in the south. If you are not, it may help you to read about the different sides beforehand so you will not waste time during the film trying to sort it out.
This is very well written script and the acting is high-quality. What the film lacks is a score. There are two Radiohead songs played in the film which fit in nicely and help shape their introspective scenes. On the other hand, the rest of film is sparse, just dialogue and scenery. This is most likely what the director (Denis Villeneuve) intended, but a memorable score would have gone a long way in helping the events portrayed here land with a deeper impact. The choice of two mellow, thoughtful Radiohead songs though was a very good idea.