‘Fire Will Come’: Redemption and Restoration, One Flame at a Time
Oliver Laxe’s brilliant Fire Will Come (currently streaming online in virtual cinemas) opens with an unease that lingers long after the images that inspired it have passed us by. These moments are crowded, quiet, as natural as they are unearthly — a sublime harbinger of the subtle violences to come. Without preface or warning, we’re in a thick forest spooked with fog. The camera moves slowly along the terrain, tracking along the forest floor, then hovering eerily through and above it all. It seems to soak up the ridge and curl of the world below, as if to take stock every root and tangle clouding this unerring dark. It is night; then, in moments so brief and subtle you think you might have imagined them, there are dashes of light.
When the source of that light is clarified, it’s by way of a sound — a mechanical rumbling that arises from within the forest. In the same instant, the trees begin to fall. The forest is being felled. The machines appear to us as monsters, with lights for eyes and giant claws, and a terrifying industrial roaring in their throats. There’s a plummeting sense of indignity to it. It should come as a relief, then, for this brief and masterfully evocative scene to end on a tree. But even this tree, as undeniably majestic as it is gnarled and peculiar, proves disconcerting.
Fire Will Come is a movie about a middle-aged man named Amador (Amador Arias), who’s just finished serving a two-year sentence in prison for arson. “Is this the pyromaniac?” one official asks another upon the inmate’s release. Yes — this is the man who set a forest on fire. He’s out on parole and returning home to a village in Galicia, a hilly, autonomous community at the northwestern-most tip of Spain. That’s where his mother, Benedicta (Benedicta Sánchez), still resides. (Like everyone else here, these actors play characters named for themselves.) He’s shrouded in hesitant loneliness, a fact noticeably evoked in the wide-open, wet images Laxe uses to introduce him. Galicia is a coastal land of hills and mountain ridges; from the impression left by this movie, you’d think it were also a land with only one road traveling through it. The village may be alienatingly remote or beautiful for being so singular. It seems to depend on how the sun catches it — and on how the film wants us to see it, and by association, this man.
We follow, at first, Amador’s slow reintegration into the community, which is indeed slow. He and his mother tend to their cattle; when they attend a funeral; someone jokingly asks him, “Got a light?“ His working life alongside his mother, to whom this movie also belongs, in many ways, is built on evocative contrasts. Compare Benedicta with her cattle — a tiny fire engine of a woman, full of motherly fury and command — versus the Benedicta who soft-shoes around her errant, unpredictable son. or the Benedicta who takes a moment out in the woods to harbor herself from the rain (and likely not just that) by hiding in the nooks of a half-burnt tree. There’s another woman, a local veterinarian named Elena (Elena Fernández). When one of the cattle falls ill, she’s the one they call. The doctor and Amador bond briefly over Leonard Cohen. She eventually hears about the fires when someone warns her about him . She does not care.
Still, this is not the bloom of a romance. Slyly, Laxe gives us just enough of this thread, and just enough of a sense of Amador’s possible rehabilitation and return to normalcy, in scenes just beautiful enough to make you anticipate otherwise. But the director is setting the groundwork for something harder to define, teasing it out bit by bit in scenes whose primary concerns are always landscapes, whether the inner ones of Amador or the external world of Galicia’s rolling, verdant countryside. These scenes aren’t the outright exercise in misdirection; they harbor … something. Even when Amador shares in moments of beauty note of portent, a sense of despair.
So when the tone shifts, a viewer might be inclined to feel that they ought to have seen it coming. At only 80 minutes and change, Fire Will Come is slim, distilled and as sharp as a shiv to the gut. It is also just as quiet in its shock — replete with a sense of inner chaos that makes sense and feels more obviously imminent only in retrospect. The look of the film have a lot to do with this: Working in 16mm, cinematographer Mauro Herce films images that have a mesmerizing weight and glide to them. The country roads emerge, through the fog and open-ended invitations of the landscape, like cracks rippling through the film’s emotional concrete. Amador’s face, too, is alive with stories, with that sharp decline in his nose and those rigid lines, the steely reserve behind his eyes. And then there is the heightened sight of Galicia, with brambles and foliage abound — appropriately and ironically, given Amador’s crime.
Fire Will Come establishes itself, from its very opening images, as a furious contest between man and nature, and the effect is, in part, to make you understand part of the sentiment behind what becomes this movie’s unexpected central tension. Trees are being felled in that opening sequence, remember. The camera’s haunting reveal of the forest and what’s happening within feels, in retrospect, not just haunted, but like the slow, angular arc of a grimace. The Paris-born Laxe, whose parents were Galician immigrants, spent formative years in these hills, so it only makes sense that the film that follows doesn’t become a mere study of a man’s solitude and anger upon his return home after prison. (And Amador’s solitude comes with an asterisk. Like Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow, another of this year’s very best releases, this movie has great costars in its cattle — and in Amador’s dog.)
The movie finds its center, rather, in the happenstance events that reveal their importance only gradually. A sick steer; a river clogged. Foliage that’s begun to dry up and die out — that is, if it’s not getting cut down. Amador believes it’s because of intrusion: a cancer (his word) begotten of the trucks that now drive through. Hauntingly and with an unsettling lack of self-awareness he says it is as if the trees had been burnt. In the moment, it’s an observation. By the end of the film, it feels like a threat.
It isn’t really a spoiler to say that this film lives up to the promise of its title. It’s the title, after all. But fire, literal and psychological, takes hold of this movie. Knowing that it comes, you are nevertheless unprepared. How could you be? Laxe’s dramatic faculties are nimble and bounteous, as he’s shown time and again in films like Mimosas (2016) and You Are All Captains (2010). But this a film in which the spirit of a man, and a place, hang in the balance. An ethical chasm opens up in the movie, ripping through the veneer of unspoken assumptions and understandings that, suddenly and damagingly, are finally uttered. Fire Will Come is a movie which will go down easy for the right viewer, one buoyed by an unexpected dash of suspense. But the film’s ideas, the questions it sends aloft as we watch, remain stuck in our throats. There are barbs among those brambles. Rare is the filmmaker like Laxe who’s not only willing, but able, to set our minds afire.