CIFF 2019: Fire Will Come, by Jonathan Leithold-Patt
Considering the title of Óliver Laxe’s Cannes-laureled third feature film, it’s not giving anything away to mention that, eventually, a fire does come. Raging through a large swath of rural land in Spain’s Galicia region, it becomes a behemoth outmatching the firefighters and villagers trying to extinguish it. As it engulfs the frame, ravaging forests and buildings in its wake, the reality sets in: this destruction really happened, and we’re watching it occur in near real time. Over the course of the scene, some questions might thus surface in the spectator’s consciousness, temporarily overwhelming the onscreen drama. When, in the chronology of Laxe’s filming, did he shoot this sequence? Did he plan the film with the expectation that a wildfire, a common occurrence in Galicia, would be a part of it, or did the blaze precede his narrative? In other words, we might ask: did the fire start the movie?
It might seem irrelevant to think about these sorts of extra-textual questions – and certainly Laxe himself could clear up any confusion – but rather than serve as distractions, their ambiguities reinforce the film’s themes, prompting us to wonder about the causal relationships between man and nature that are being negotiated throughout. And in a film comprised of non-actors playing characters who bare their namesakes, such docu-fictional concerns are woven into the fabric of the film from the start. The viewer may not be clued into this initially, however. Following a transfixing, nearly mystical prologue, we’re introduced to our protagonist, Amador, who’s coming home after serving time in prison for starting a fire in the countryside where he lives. The stolid man, whose countenance suggests a cross between Harry Dean Stanton and Bruno Ganz, reunites with his old mother (Benedicta Sánchez) in their mountain village, where life seems to have never progressed from the agrarian past. But modernity appears in telling details. Some men are restoring a building nearby to attract tourists, while talk of invasive eucalyptus trees imported from Australia – the same ones being bulldozed in the prologue – bring up notions of ruinous global industry. For the most part, this first section of the film is a visually striking, languid-to-a-fault wallow in the foggy Galician scenery, in which Amador struggles to cast off his pariah status in perpetual visual gloom.
When the sun finally breaks the gray dampness, the sense of relief is fleeting. Despite a tentative relationship with a kindly veterinarian, Amador continues to be unable to assimilate to his hostile community. And then the fire comes. Did the ex-convict start this one like he allegedly did the one before? Is it, in fact, a flashback to that earlier one? It’s unclear. What’s important is that a fire happened, and a fire will happen again. In this cyclicality, and in the questions of cause-and-effect it raises, Laxe seems to suggest how humanity and nature are in a constant, reciprocal relationship of destruction and renewal, with the two hard to separate. After all, the blaze can also be read as a kind of ablution, cleansing the industrial progress that would, if unimpeded, have erased the region’s traditions. Fire Will Come traffics in a familiar kind of art-film obliqueness, to uneven effect, but the thought it provokes about modern ecology – and how it relates to technology, film included – at least keeps its ideas simmering in the mind.