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, their discoveries become your own, and at some point, you realize you're watching a better film than any you've seen since 2010.
The source material is the play "Scorched" (2003) by Wajdi Mouawad, a Lebanese theater artist who emigrated to Quebec and then Montreal. Brilliantly adapted, his play 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.
"Incendies" is no mere riff on a Greek mainstay. It is its own entity, delicate and fierce. Already I've risked making it sound like homework. It's not; it's an enthralling drama of survival. 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. Her 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 a 6-year-old boy, playwright Mouawad witnessed a brutal attack by Christian militiamen on a bus carrying unarmed Palestinians outside Beirut. This was 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.
The movie moves like water and uses only as many words as needed to keep us oriented.
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.
Produced by Luc Dery and Kim McCraw, written and directed by Denis Villeneuve, distributed by Sony Pictures Classics.