Incendies, Denis Villeneuve, 131 mins (15)
Viva Riva! Djo Munga, 96 mins (15)
The First Grader, Justin Chadwick 105 mins (12A)

If violence in distant countries is not your thing...then this is not your week

You can understand why Incendies was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.

It's a furrow-browed epic concerning the repercussions of war – and it happens to boast some fabulous cinematography, too. If you're going to watch a busload of women and children being machine-gunned by religious fanatics then I suppose the mountain scenery might as well look as crisp and sunny as it does here. But I wonder how many of the Oscar voters who supported it would choose to watch the film a second time.

Adapted from Wajdi Mouawad's play, Incendies is structured as a detective story. In present-day Canada, a woman (Lubna Azabal) dies and leaves her two grown-up children with some annoyingly cryptic hints about her youth in a fictional Middle Eastern country. As the siblings delve into her past, flashbacks take us through several decades of her life, during which she's subjected to every appalling abuse that extremism and civil war can offer. These sequences are undoubtedly powerful, but seeing one of them after another is more draining than affecting, and Azabal starts to seem less like a human being than a symbol of victimhood.

Finally, there's a narrative twist that's even more horrific than all the horrors that precede it. In its favour, this twist ties the film's strands together very neatly, but it relies on such a monumental coincidence that it feels gimmicky, cheapening the heroine's ordeal with an M Night Shyamalan-style "gotcha". I won't be rushing to see Incendies again myself.

Still, if you do have a yen for scenes of hideous torture in distant countries, then this is your week. The second of three films which fit that bill, Viva Riva! is also the first film to reach Britain from the Democratic Republic of Congo. It's set on the bustling back streets of Kinshasa, where its anti-hero, Riva (Patsha Bay), is trying to buy and sell a lorryload of stolen oil. As he ducks and dives through slums and brothels, dodging police and gangsters alike, it looks for a breathless minute as if Viva Riva! might be an African answer to City of God.

But no, its initial crackling vibrancy soon dissipates, and Riva's own misadventures are swallowed up in a mire of supporting characters, silly sub-plots, and stomach-turning violence, much of it directed at women. By the end, it's less a vital dispatch from the DRC and more a misogynistic exploitation movie about a flash thug. It's not an answer to City of God, but to the numerous London gangster flicks which came out after Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.

For a rosier view of Africa today – although, don't worry, it's not without its mutilation and infanticide – there's The First Grader, a well-meaning British drama set in Kenya. Based on a true story, it opens with the government's promise of free primary education for all, a promise which an 84-year-old peasant (Oliver Litondo) takes at face value. He's never learnt to read, so he insists on joining a class of five-year-olds in a rural school. The head teacher, Naomie Harris, takes his side, but in doing so she comes up against local parents and officials who complain that ... well, actually I'm not quite sure what they're complaining about.

The old man's presence at the school doesn't cause any problems, so I assume that the obstacles thrown in Harris's path at regular intervals have less to do with the facts of the story than they have with the producers' desire for their film to stick to a Triumph Over Adversity template. The disgruntlement of Harris's husband, the arrival of the press, the bonding between the old man and a classmate ... everything happens on schedule, and even the flashbacks to Litondo's sufferings as a Mau Mau guerrilla seem to have been shoved in to invest an interesting tale with a grand political significance it doesn't have.

Considering how colourful the film's real Kenyan landscapes and songs are, it's a shame that a shiny veneer of Hollywood contrivance has been slapped on top of them.

Next Week:

Nicholas Barber sees Tom Hanks multi-task as the star, director, co-writer and producer of Larry Crowne, in which bone idle Julia Roberts merely co-stars

Film Choice

Catherine Deneuve and Gérard Depardieu let their hair down in François Ozon's camp but acerbic 70s-style farce Potiche, in which Deneuve is the titular "trophy wife". Meanwhile, a younger and sleeker Jeff Bridges has the show stolen by a raucous John Heard in Cutter's Way, a trenchant piece of post-Vietnam noir from 1981.

Also Showing: 26/06/2011

Love's Kitchen (93 mins, 15)

British independent cinema serves up three of its least appetising films this week. First, Love's Kitchen, a cheap-as-chips romcom starring Dougray Scott as a widowed chef who revamps a country pub. Scott's real wife, Claire Forlani, is the love interest; Simon Callow chews the scenery as a bibulous critic; and Gordon Ramsay has an excruciating cameo which is far from the worst thing in the film.

World of the Dead: The Zombie Diaries 2 (88 mins, 18)

This derivative zombie nonsense doesn't appear to be a professional film at all, but a home movie made by some Romero fans who fancied running around the countryside with a video camera one weekend.

Ghosted (100 mins, 18)

In comparison, this prison drama is at least semi-professional, with some actors (Martin Compston, John Lynch, Craig Parkinson) who know what they're doing. But it's still uninvolving, with a twist ending that stretches credibility well past breaking point.

Countdown to Zero (90 mins, PG)

Lucy Walker's anti-nuke documentary is so convinced that we're all about to be annihilated by a terrorist with an A-bomb that you come out almost surprised that it hasn't happened already. It's sobering stuff, but might have been more compelling if it had kept to a central narrative instead of wandering all around the subject.

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