Fire Will Come

 

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It may be less than perfect but this film is certainly remarkable.

 
Fire Will Come
  

Oliver Laxe has only made three films and the first of these was never released here. However, the second, 2016’s Mimosas, immediately made one aware that he had exceptional talent even if that film’s attempt to blend two storylines led eventually to a certain confusion of purpose. With his third piece, again co-written by Laxe and Santiago Fillol and made with the same photographer and editor, we have another example of his outstanding skills even if - as with Mimosas but for a different reason - Fire Will Come ultimately fails to be the masterpiece it had looked set to become.

 

For this new piece Laxe went back to his ancestral roots by filming in Galicia in the rural north-west of Spain. The first hour is brilliant, superbly atmospheric and aided by perfect casting. Like Bresson, Laxe favours non-professional players and here he has two in particular who are ideal for their roles. Amador Arias is the central figure, a man in his forties who, released from prison after two years, returns to his native home and to the farm in the mountains run by his aged mother, Benedicta. The latter, in the person of Benedicta Sánchez, is, in fact, the film’s most haunting presence.

 

Some of the location shots feature winding country roads and thus bring to mind the films of the late Abbas Kiarostami, but it is the local community and their responses to Amador that are central to a tale in which the drama is deliberately underplayed in keeping with the film’s minimalistic tone. The unsentimental but strong bond between mother and son may be a key element here but in essence Fire Will Come is telling a story that has many similarities with the famous Benjamin Britten opera Peter Grimes. In that work a Suffolk fisherman whose apprentice accidentally falls and dies is regarded by his community as having caused that death and the man, who has never really fitted in, pays the price of being regarded as an outsider and thus somebody that they can turn on. In this tale Amador is someone known to have been jailed for causing a hillside fire and that experience has increased the inability of this rather withdrawn man to get on easily with his neighbours (despite which there is a certain rapport when he encounters a vet played by Elena Fernández). Indeed, the opening scenes dealing with his release from prison contain a reference to his being a pyromaniac, but we never know if that is so or if in actual fact he was punished for an act of which he was not guilty at all. 

 

Laxe has indicated that he feels that it is unimportant to know if Amador’s punishment was a miscarriage of justice, but the drama might well have been stronger if this had been made clear one way or the other and commented on accordingly. As it is we see his sensitivity with animals and are at the very least made aware of an appealing side to his nature. Similarly, although a religious sense is present and witnessed by the occasional use of choral music on the soundtrack, we never know, as we did with Bresson, where the filmmaker stands on this. What is apparent is the humanity in a statement made by Benedicta at one point, a comment which can be treated as having a wider relevance: “If they hurt others, it’s because they hurt too”.

 

It is the last third of Fire Will Come that prevents it from being the masterpiece that one had hoped for up to that point. Given the film’s title, it feels fair enough to reveal that the story builds to a major fire for which at least some of the locals are ready to blame Amador regardless of having no real evidence. Aesthetically, two problems arise here. One relates to the fire scenes. In point of fact the filmmakers, knowing of the frequency of fires in the area, waited for a real one to break out and then photographed that, but the fact is that this takes up almost a quarter of an hour and for all that time Amador and Benedicta remain out of the picture. The other issue stems from the difference between these scenes and the film’s eerie opening sequence in which eucalyptus trees that cause damage are cut down. That first section is only gradually explained in realistic terms, but the episode carries a sense of almost apocalyptical foreboding and that gives it a symbolic weight that makes it feel part and parcel of the drama that will unfold in the rest of the film. In contrast to that, the fire sequence, remarkable in itself, has a documentary feel that detaches it from becoming an effective dramatic climax in the personal tale unfolding. In the last ten minutes or so, Amador and Benedicta do, of course, reappear, but what happens plays out in the film’s quiet minor key and Laxe is unable to suggest the acute inner devastation which, in theory, might have been made to feel all the more powerful for being on the surface less catastrophic than one might expect.

 

Ultimately, then, Fire Will Come falls short of what it might have been. But how superbly it is photographed and what brilliance there is in so much of Laxe’s direction - on top of which there is in one scene a splendid use of a famous song by Leonard Cohen on the soundtrack. Altogether and despite its eventual shortcomings Fire Will Come is a film not to be missed.

 

Original title: O que arde.

  

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Amador Arias, Benedicta Sánchez, Inazio Abrao, Elena Fernández, David de Poso, Álvaro de Bazal, Damián Prado, Nando Vázquez.

 

Dir Oliver Laxe, Pro Andrea Vázquez García, Xavi Font, Andrea Querait and Mani Mortazavi, Screenplay Oliver Laxe and Santiago Fillol, Ph Mauro Herce, Art Dir Samuel Lema and Curru Garabal, Ed Cristóbal Fernández, Music Xavi Font, Costumes Nadia Acimi.

 

Miramemira/4 A 4 Productions/Kowalski Films/Tarantula-New Wave Films.
86 mins. Spain/France/Luxembourg. 2019. Rel: 20 March 2020. Available on Curzon Home Cinema. Cert. 12A.