There are things you don't do on film, if you want to keep your viewer's sympathy. You don't shoot toddlers, for one—especially not in front of their mom. You don't burn innocents alive. You don't rape the main character, then get on speaking terms with the rapist.

Denis Villeneuve's Incendies does all of these things, amid a thinly fictionalized Lebanese civil war, but it manages to do so without any rote shock or hollow spectacle. The tone instead is slow-building elegy. Rather than dote lovingly on the grotesque physicality of atrocity—think Spielberg, that most talented of pornographers—the camera registers instead the atrocity's effects on the remarkably expressive face of protagonist Nawal Marwan (Lubna Azabal), a mother who is seeking her son somewhere in the wreckage. Her ability to register grief or anger or exhausted serenity approaches sublimity in its bottomlessness—as if she were a late-Almodóvar icon of womanhood, set loose in the desert of the Arab 1970s to suffer for the sake of beauty.

Her pain is framed, again, by pain, spread around like thick jam; Narwal's harrowing story is told in fits and starts, discovered with great difficulty by her now-grown French-Canadian children—twins, portentously, with opposing relationships to the past—as they try to find their unknown father in their mother's homeland, after her death, to meet the eccentric terms of her will.

It is a distancing formal gesture on Villeneuve's part, one that makes obvious the film's start as a play—it is now a play with some tremendously expansive cinematography, a great steaming post-Sirkian melodrama recast as meditation. The wild narrative implausibilities and telegraphed  classical gesture—tragedy twisted round tragedy like a snake round a sword—paradoxically elevate what might have been a mere formalist weepie into an affecting politico-Oedipal fable about memory, loss and forgiveness.

The film buttons itself up a little too tightly, perhaps, in the end—one feels the sudden onset of a moral, a self-satisfied summation, but the shock of this is gentle. What remains in one's memory is the deeply satisfying transcendence of beautiful suffering. This, too, is a sort of pornography—a middlebrow porn of important feelings—but also a fulfilling affirmation of what remains after loss: Less rainbows after the rain than the unlikely weight of the waterlogged and the blinding shine of a wet street. R.

SEE IT: Incendies opens Friday at Fox Tower.