In 2017, I went to my local AMC theater and watched “Blade Runner 2049” for the first time. Around the halfway mark, I came to a realization: Denis Villeneuve is the greatest director working. It’s a heretic statement given the film school lust around classic auteurs like Wes Anderson, David Fincher, and Ari Aster. But if the barometer is quantity of amazing movies, Villeneuve takes the cake. Aside from the epic “2049,” the Canadian director has also helmed “Prisoners,” “Arrival,” and “Sicario”, just to name a few. All three are masterpieces and all three are highly rewatchable, a quality often forgotten when criticizing a film.
However, my favorite Villeneuve film is his debut feature, “Incendies.” The historical drama tells the story of two twins searching for the father they never knew and the brother they never knew they had. Switching between past and present, modern Canada and war-ridden Lebanon, “Incendies” questions the nature of religious persecution. What is it about believing in a certain deity that prompts senseless hatred and violence? It seems like a heavy film, and trust me, it is. But it never loses excitement, and the thrills of “Incendies” are blended deftly with the drama in classic Villeneuve form.
Despite pleas from her brother, Jeanne, the female twin, flies to Lebanon guided by a letter from her mother, Nawal. Jeanne traverses through the Middle Eastern and prompts a series of flashbacks featuring the mother as a younger woman. Nawal (Lubna Azabal) is the true heroine of the story and it is through her eyes that Villeneuve expresses the pathos of the film. Her character is amazingly compelling, and Lubna Azabal delivers a breathtaking performance.
“Incendies” is not for the faint of heart, nor should it be. Scenes depicting torture and rape are pitiless and pithy, tiptoeing the capricious line between real and gratuitous. But the violence ultimately lends to the depth of the film; constructing a narrative built on love and torn apart by war. The cinematography in “Incendies” is also remarkable, particularly the vastness of the rural Lebanese town Nawal grew up in. It’s technical perfection and evidence as to why legendary cinematographers like Roger Deakins and Bradford Young consistently collaborate with Villeneuve.
If you haven’t seen “Incendies”, I highly recommend it. It’s currently available for rent on Amazon Prime and YouTube. Oh, and watch “Dune” in theaters on October 1st.