Director: Oliver Laxe
Stars: Amador Arias, Benedicta Sanchez, Elena Mar Fernández
The opening of Oliver Laxe’s Fire Will Come is some of the most haunting, arresting imagery I’ve seen in film of any form for quite some time. We’re in a dimly lit forest at night. In the gloom the stark spines of the trees are barely outlined. Then they begin to fall, bowing and then descending in some awful choreography as the sickly yellow lights from a pair of bulldozers start casting strange and threatening shadows. It has the same dour and menacing feel as some of Jonathan Glazer’s work setting tone for Under the Skin. And it sets out an early eco-conscious stall for a picture about finding some kind of redemption.
The other side of 40, Amador (Amador Arias) has just been released from a two-year stretch in prison. He was incarcerated for starting a forest fire that caused untold damage, and his parole seems a matter of consternation for the faceless bureaucrats that pass his forms around. With nowhere else to go, Amador returns to the small hillside farmland owned by his mother, Benedicta (Benedicta Sanchez). She seems quite indifferent to his arrival, but when speaking to locals she says she is pleased. Theirs is a quite and gloomy life. Again, Glazer’s depiction of the Scottish moorland is evoked in Laxe’s majestic documentation of the Spanish hillsides; all rolling mist, dense forests and earthen scrub. The modern world has barely touched this existence.
There’s a resigned undercurrent at play here. A sense of a way of life ending. Some of the locals are fixing up old cottages and rundown buildings so that they can become rich as landlords. This is the future they see for the area; not as a continuing agricultural haven, but as gentrified countryside. This correlates with the bulldozers at the beginning. For all that Amador is vilified for his crime, an equivalent act is being lawfully perpetrated against nature in the name of progress. Amador herds cows on the fringes of this new development. They are within touching distance of one another.
After such a stirring opening, Fire Will Come settles into a leisurely groove, documenting the activities of rural living. While these machinations are interesting in and of themselves, it’s a decidedly slow-burn, and the sense of mournful poetry summoned in the pre-credits sequence comes to feel a little disconnected from the main body of the piece, which is more patient, contemplative. Documentarian. Amador is a quiet man, almost inscrutable, but he does appear to be sincerely trying to carve out a new chapter in his life… something thrown into chaos by the return of the forest fires, prefigured – literally – by the return of operatic source music on the film’s soundtrack (not heard since the beginning).
In an act that feels at once bravura and opportunistic, Laxe films actual Spanish forest fires as backdrop to his unfolding drama. It certainly makes for dramatic imagery and, with the aid of his DP Mauro Herce, Laxe frames the burning forest more artfully than we’re more commonly afforded by news choppers. Still, a sense of the genuine threat of working with real, uncontrollable wildlife precludes a return to the more clearly conceptualised shots that opened the picture. An ash rain reaches the rural farm belonging to Benedicta, and a quietly apocalyptic aura builds. A firefighters finds a goat standing on the kitchen table inside the abandoned homestead – a world turned on its head.
Implicit to the return of the fires is the insinuation of Amador’s culpability; the urge to assert blame. But we must also acknowledge that there are too many unknowns. Did he start the fire? Was he even guilty of the fire he was incarcerated for? Are the workmen bulldozing the area responsible through negligence? Or, are these natural purges for which no person can be held responsible?
Within the frame of the slight story Laxe provides us, it feels as though the fire is a rebuke to the so-called progress occurring in the area, defiant of the planned gentrification and of man’s arrogant sense of dominion over nature. The locals beat fruitlessly at the flames as fires roar across acres and later stare up at their vanishing homes as though punished by God. As though they have been judged. A helicopter, silhouetted against the sun, appears like an angel, adding further ambiguity to the role of technology in this scenario. Meanwhile, answers to the questions raised dissipate like smoke. The raging forest fire dwarfs Laxe’s redemptive fable, casting his man-made story as relatively minor. Fire Will Come stakes itself out as grand, but its also just a bit maddening in its refusal to take on a fundamental shape. Like it’s quiet protagonist, it’s there then gone again.