Reviewed in brief.
If you think of Canadian films as the movie equivalent of cucumber sandwiches and chamomile tea, hold tight. Montreal filmmaker Denis Villeneuve's "Incendies" is a pulse-pounding saga of Mideast war and family tragedy that hits with an "Apocalypse Now"-sized wallop. A Quebec sister and brother (Mélissa Désormeaux Poulin, Maxim Gaudette) receive disturbing instructions at the reading of their immigrant mother's will. They are charged with returning to their ancestral home to deliver one sealed envelope to the father they believed was dead, and another to a brother they never knew they had. Visiting the old country (an unnamed, Lebanon-like war zone torn by Christian-Muslim strife), they uncover a shattering secret. The film is a thrilling mystery-melodrama and a passionate sermon against sectarian violence. Interwoven with the contemporary sleuthing is a parallel story strand charting the political and moral evolution of their mother (Lubna Azabal), whose story begins as a Romeo and Juliet romance and ends, like the original, in a crescendo of clan violence. The themes are primal, the emotions powerful and cathartic.
If Samuel Beckett and Jacques Tati collaborated on a National Geographic nature film, the result would be a lot like this oddball Italian docudrama. Unfolding in long, virtually wordless takes, Michelangelo Frammartino's film begins as a portrait of an aged goatherd living in a quaint village in the hills of Calabria. The solitary old man has a peculiar way of keeping in touch with his deceased wife, but just as we puzzle that out, the focus shifts to the man's bleating flock, and then to a majestic tree felled and decorated for a holiday ceremony, and again to the village's methodical procedure for converting cordwood to salable charcoal. The film is a mystery wrapped in an enigma, but if you think of the title (roughly, "the four episodes") as the four seasons of life, its ashes-to-ashes subtext comes clear. It's moody, elegiac, a touch melancholy, but shot through with flashes of droll comedy. A scene of livestock getting free from their pen and gumming up the village's routine human business unfolds with Swiss-watch precision. It's the whole human comedy played as a near-silent film.
With the opening of Terrence Malick's much-anticipated new film just weeks away, Walker Art Center has mounted a retrospective of the celebrated director's visually lush earlier films this weekend. The museum will present 35mm screenings of his 1973 crime-spree romance "Badlands" Friday at 7:30 p.m. "Days of Heaven," Malick's 1978 story of love and death on the prairie follows on Sunday at 3 p.m. His sprawling 1998 adaptation of James Jones' World War II combat novel "The Thin Red Line" screens next Friday at 7:30 p.m. On May 21 at 7:30 p.m., the Walker presents 2005's "The New World," Malick's skeptical retelling of the John Smith-Pocahontas romance. The finale comes June 1 at 7:30 p.m. when the museum offers the Twin Cities debut of "The Tree of Life," fresh from its Cannes Film Festival world premiere and introduced by producer William Pohlad. The film stars Sean Penn, Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain in an impressionistic, time-spanning family drama.