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Originally published Thursday, May 26, 2011 at 3:01 PM

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Movie review

'Incendies': Mother's final wish leads to a gripping mystery

A movie review of "Incendies," which unfolds backward and forward in time as it follows two grown children in search of their mother's secrets.

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 3 stars

'Incendies,' with Lubna Azabal, Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin, Maxim Gaudette, Rémy Girard. Written and directed by Denis Villeneuve. 130 minutes. Rated R for some strong violence and language. In French and Arabic with English subtitles. Harvard Exit.

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"Incendies" is an intricate, often riveting mystery that unfolds backward and forward in time. Set primarily in an unnamed country that bears a close history with Lebanon, events are told in scenes that require constant attention to the shifts in perspective.

This challenging task becomes increasingly gripping as the narrative drapes across years of a past civil war and the equally damaging emotional battle of a family whose present is torn by piety and horror.

The trio of characters who occupy the swaths of time are Nawal (Lubna Azabal) and her twin children Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) and Simon (Maxim Gaudette), who have grown up in Montreal with little thought of their recently deceased mother's heritage. But as conditions of her will, the grown twins must deliver two sealed letters before her body can be put to rest.

Jeanne's is addressed to their father and Simon's to their brother. Even though the twins believed their unknown father to be long dead and have been unaware of the existence of a brother, the will assures them that both men are very much alive.

With nothing more than the family name and a vague history of Nawal's early life, both children get a crack at solving the mystery.

The children uncover incremental details in the same objective fashion that director Denis Villeneuve doles out clues about Nawal's tribulations as a young woman. A deeply resonant literary quality gives what might otherwise seem like a dubious series of coincidences a profound sense of plausibility.

The truths revealed by the surprise ending are truly devastating, especially to those for whom reality has been unimaginably upended.

Ted Fry:

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