I went into the movie Incendies knowing very little about it, other than the fact it was nominated for Best Foreign Film and was some sort of family drama. The story begins when Jeanne and Simon, twins in their 20s in Quebec, are given some unusual instructions following the death of their mother Nawal- rather than a traditional will, the notary hands them two sealed envelopes addressed to the father and the brother they didn't know existed. Their task is to find the recipients and deliver the letters, and in the process they must travel to their mother's middle eastern homeland and learn about the history she had kept hidden from them. When you see what Nawal lived through, in a series of flashbacks, you fully understand why she never spoke of her past.
I spent the first thirty minutes racking my brains trying figure out what country the movie was set in...it looked the the middle east, but I hadn't heard of any of the cities mentioned, and the two warring factions were Christians and Muslims so it couldn't have been Israel. It turns out that my confusion was intentional- the film is set in a fictional country so the names of the places are made up, although in truth it's filmed in Jordan and takes place in Lebanon- the home of the playwright (the film is an adaptation of a play) and the setting of a lengthy civil war between various armed Christian and Muslim militias (of which I was completely ignorant).
Early on, Nawal's boyfriend is shot dead by her brothers, who do not approve of their Christian sister dating a Muslim refugee. She's pregnant, and in a moment of sympathy, Nawal's grandmother tattoos the baby's heel before he is taken away to an orphanage, giving Nawal hope of finding him again someday, but a brutal civil war gets in the way. I won't divulge more of the plot but let's just say Nawal's life gets a lot worse, and the story unfolds like an ancient Greek tragedy as the twins unravel the mysteries of their mother's past. Incendies does have a few lighter moments, mainly involving dedicated notaries and the drinking of tea, but it's definitely one of the most intense and haunting movies I've seen in a long time. For that reason, I can say that it's a very good movie and certainly captivating, but traumatic enough that I can't quite say I recommend it, even though it's been on my mind ever since. It did inspire me to read up a bit on the history of Lebanon, though. Here's the New York Times review.