“What fire does not destroy, it hardens,” Lord Henry says in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. There’s no disaster quite like a fire; as Californians can attest, it’s one of our greatest fears, that one’s home will suddenly and irrevocably be obliterated in a blaze. But there’s also something beautiful about watching a fire, listening to it crackle, bathing in its light and warmth. Such is the case with Oliver Laxe’s Fire Will Come, a hypnotic and mesmerizing slow burn of a film, equipped with an ever-present fuse that threatens to detonate at any moment.
Winner of the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize at Cannes, the film starts ominously in the dark woods, silent until bare trees start falling down. After a minute, we see yellow bulldozers moving through the forest, knocking them down, but not for logging; it is as if these mechanical monsters are eliminating an enemy before it can strike. The sounds of the bulldozers pushing through the trees soon vanish, replaced by menacing music as the camera floats from a close-up of tree bark to one of the bulldozers, like it’s a large, malicious creature, its two top lights shutting off like a pair of eyes closing after a long day of killing.
The story moves to a small, tight-knit rural village in the mountains of Galicia, where Amador Coro (Amador Arias) has returned to live with his mother, Benedicta (Benedicta Sanchez), after having spent time in prison for starting a wildfire. He cares for their three cows, is followed around by his loyal dog, and carries with him an unspoken but heavy guilt, a melancholy that overwhelms his every gesture. He says little, enduring taunts from his former friends in town, who tease him by asking for a light, when they speak to him at all. “If they make suffer, it’s because they are suffering,” his mother assures him. She also tells him, “I’m really happy that you’re home,” but there is little evidence of any contentment, few smiles to be had.
We never learn exactly what Amador might have done and what its effects were, but the blame clearly runs deep. This is no obvious situation in which a gender-reveal party led to devastation; instead, it’s more about humanity’s relationship with nature and the planet, about our responsibilities to the land and to the animals, which include ourselves. Like California, Galicia is a place where wildfires run rampant, among the worst in Europe, the result not only of climate change or accidents but of controlled burns that erupt out of control, in part due to invasive eucalyptus trees. The fires have become political because of their economic ramifications as much as for the havoc they wreak.
Water plays a key role in the film alongside fire. During a rainstorm, Benedicta finds shelter in the nook of a large tree. Later, when Amador takes one of the cows, Parda, to bathe in a dirty pond surrounded by greenery, the animal is uneasy, unwilling to leave the safety of the muddy water. After getting help from the local vet, Elena (Elena Fernandez), he rides back with her in her truck as she plays Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne,” Cohen singing, “And Jesus was a sailor when he walked upon the water / And he spent a long time watching from his lonely wooden tower / And when he knew for certain only drowning men could see him / He said all men will be sailors then until the sea shall free them.” Elena tries to become friends with Amador, but he, broken and feeling forsaken, pushes her away.
His loneliness is palpable, plagued with a conscience that burdens him with shame, a big, strong man now sad and fragile, not interested in seeking redmption. It’s as if he exists on a different plane, dourly wandering through a world that he no longer belongs in, that he feels he doesn’t deserve. In his first film, Arias, a former forest warden who now works with animals, is brutally honest, his craggy face etched in strife, his gait constantly troubled. Fire Will Come is steeped in reality, from the use of nonprofessional actors to the fires themselves. Laxe (You All Are Captains, Mimosas), the French-born son of Galician parents, shot the film in his grandparents’ village, among people he knows. He did not use CGI; instead, he had his cast and crew wait for real forest fires, then filmed actual firefighters battling them. You can almost feel the heat coming off the screen; the film is gorgeously photographed by Mauro Herce, through foggy landscapes, stunning vistas, and claustrophobic interiors, accompanied by natural sounds captured by Sergio da Silva, Xavier Souto, and Amanda Villavieja and a soundtrack that features Vivaldi and Haas in addition to sparse but effective incidental music by Xavi Font. It all comes together in one scene in which Amador is driving in his car, the camera following him from outside, reflections of trees passing over the front windshield as classical music plays. Editor Cristóbal Fernandez maintains a deliberate, almost reluctant pace.
The opening and closing scenes are stark reminders of our connection to the earth and the frightening potential for one to destroy the other. The Galician title of the film, O que arde, means “What burns,” which is not as sinister as “Fire will come,” a warning of what lies ahead. In 1969, Peggy Lee sang, “I remember when I was a very little girl, our house caught on fire / I’ll never forget the look on my father’s face as he gathered me up / in his arms and raced through the burning building out to the pavement / I stood there shivering in my pajamas and watched the whole world go up in flames / And when it was all over I said to myself, is that all there is to a fire.” In his third feature film, Laxe shows us that there is so much more.
[Fire Will Come is streaming at Metrograph October 30 to November 5; each rental comes with access to a conversation between Laxe and master cinematographer Ed Lachman (Far from Heaven, Light Sleeper.)]