This review first appeared in the Sunday Star Times, 31st July 2011
This incredibly gripping, multi-layered story was rightly nominated for the Best Foreign Film Academy Award (though it lost to Denmark’s terrific In a Better World). Based on an award-winning play, director Denis Villeneuve brings the tale to the screen with visual flair and deep emotional resonance, aided by an extraordinary cast of faces who reveal pain without saying very much.
Following an eerily beautiful but initially confusing opening scene, set to a suitably mournful Radiohead song (convincing as a music video), we switch to present day Canada, where twins Jeanne and Simon attend the reading of their mother’s will. Shocked at her shame-filled burial demands, they are then unsettled that a condition of her will requires they deliver letters to the father they thought was dead, and a brother they never knew existed.
The story flashes back and forth between their mother’s younger life and the twins’ quest for the truth. Lubna Azabal (Paradise Now) plays Nawal Marwan, growing up in an unnamed Middle Eastern country (widely touted as Lebanon, but the lack of clarification intentional to avoid a political statement). Nawal’s dogged determination to find the child taken from her makes for an incredible journey, mirrored by the challenge she lays down for her adult children – a treasure hunt for the soul, since (as the notary puts it) “Death isn’t the end of the story – it always leaves traces”. The slow-burning but intoxicating build-up to an electrifying climax provides an incredible payoff.