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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

The new film "Incendies" is set largely in the Middle East, and it has the structure of an old-fashioned mystery. In French, the title means fire, conflagration, blaze. And Bob Mondello says that's fitting because the film burns hotter than most.

BOB MONDELLO: Near the beginning of "Incendies," a notary in Canada reads a mother's will to her two grown children, twins Simon and Jeanne.

(Soundbite of movie, "Incendies")

Mr. REMY GIRARD (Actor): (as Notary Jean Lebel) (Foreign language spoken)

MONDELLO: In the will, Nawal Marwan specifies that she is to be buried without a coffin or headstone, naked and face down, because those who don't keep their promises don't deserve to face the world. Then the notary hands the twins two envelopes that the will specifies must be delivered to their father and their brother. Once that's done, their mother's promise will have been kept, and they can place a headstone on her grave.

The problem? As far as the twins know, their father died decades earlier, half a world away, and they don't have a brother.

So begins an odyssey that immerses Simon and Jeanne deep in a Middle Eastern past that their mother, played searingly by Lubna Azabal, never talked about - a past in which she bore a child out of wedlock, her disgrace catching her family up in a bloody chain of violence and retribution, militant Christians and Muslims slaughtering each other in an unending cycle of revenge for past murders.

(Soundbite of movie, "Incendies")

Unidentified Man (Actor): (as character) (Foreign language spoken)

(Soundbite of gunfire)

MONDELLO: The country isn't specified, but it's pretty clearly Lebanon, from which playwright Wajdi Mouawad and his family fled when he was a child. "Incendies" is based on his play "Scorched," though until its final moments, there's barely a hint that it came from the stage. Where the play is crammed with long paragraphs of dialogue, Denis Villeneuve's film makes its most trenchant points with silence, gasps, wails, his camera panning across brutal landscapes as characters have their lives upended by newly discovered truths.

I can't recall seeing a film in which I have so often wondered: My God, how must that feel? At least partly because we in the audience are meant to be as unsettled as the characters. A few critics have argued that the ending is over-the-top, and I suppose, if you're a literalist, it is. But the storytelling in "Incendies" strikes me as primal the way Greek tragedy is primal. Shattering. Cathartic. It is, no matter how you feel about the ending, a breathtaking film.

I'm Bob Mondello.

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