The Un Certain Regard section of every Cannes Film Festival can often be more fascinating than what’s in competition. Dedicating a secondary set of films with their own accolades to win under the guise of them being more “non-traditional” than the main collection is bound to draw attention to some work that ends up achieving a greater statement. The winner of 2019’s Jury Prize in the section is one of those lesser-profiled works that received its prize and receives its wide release after the fact. It’s a sad fact when some distributors aren’t sure when or how to promote the more unique films.
And yet, here’s Oliver Laxe‘s latest feature Fire Will Come, a film from out of Spain that profiles the harsh relationship between man and nature, in their individual intimidating presence and their respective lack of compassion for the other. It’s a meaty subject worth exploring, especially considering the climate crisis right on our heels, and could result in a film that meditates on it with a touch that’s as artistic as it is thought-provoking. Fire Will Come has the market cornered on the artistry, but for all its technical skill, it comes up short, both in length and in content.
The Slowest of Slow Burns
Right off the bat, the film makes a beautiful impression as shots of a forest in Galicia at night pervade the frame at multiple angles until suddenly a tree collapses as if tumbled by an outside force. Another falls, and another, one by one until the audio slowly builds and it cuts to the grown, revealing a bulldozer being what’s mowing down all these trees until a giant, old tree comes into its path. This is the work of Amador Coro (Amador Arias), who is later imprisoned for two years for arson when he burns the forest down. Upon release, he returns to the community and the cow farm of his elderly mother (Benedicta Sánchez).
His return is tense but welcoming. People will crack jokes about his crime, but are quickly rebuffed by others who believe he’s changed. The work Amador does is menial, but he’s clearly a natural at it until time comes to help stubborn cows, in which case he gets assistance from a veterinarian who knows nothing of his past. These are just a smattering of moments that occur between the beginning and end, all played out at a deliberate pace that focuses more on the mundanity of a simple way of life.
Laxe‘s documentary background makes the film pulse with naturalism, and distant shots of the fog-shrouded woods do set up a tension for the inevitability of the title that still stands as being beautiful. What’s problematic is how much these uneventful images absorb the majority of the film. One can argue that narrative is secondary to Fire Will Come, and that it’s all about evoking a mood. I find that mood pieces are best when constantly building upon the feelings it delivers from the start. The opening sequence described earlier is almost mythical in its presentation, recalling the images from the likes of Carlos Reygadas’ Silent Light, or Scott Barley’s Sleep Has Her House. Those films keep the air of nature’s mystery going in every movement while Fire Will Come pads itself out before the storm.
There’s not much doubt as to whether Amador has rehabilitated or not, as he’s not seen as a powder keg waiting to burst or much of a friendly neighbor. The anxiousness from people who live in the area doesn’t exist as everyone seems mostly sympathetic. With that all said, there’s no dramatic intensity that leaves all the lingering visions of the farmlands to be pretty pictures more than atmosphere, even with the sudden needle drop of Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne.”
Going Out in a Blaze of Glory
The title truly is a giveaway, even if the resulting buildup isn’t totally in sync with it. However, the titular fire that comes is easily sharing a spot with the introduction as Laxe‘s filmmaking at its best. The focus shifts from Amador and his mother to a group of firefighters who are tasked with extinguishing the latest wildfire in the same neck of the woods as the village Amador nearly burned down. It’s unknown as to whether the fire happened naturally or another arson attack, but it’s secondary to the firemen guiding the residents away and shooing away the animals to safety.
Over fifteen minutes of screen time does this sequence last, and it appears to be footage captured of an actual wildfire. The threatening mist of dark smoke and flames over the treetops can’t possibly be replicated on a budget, and have the reactions of the firefighters play out in real-time. It’s something that should be commended as a daring brush with danger in the name of capping off a film in a memorable way. Perhaps the monotonous journey on the way to such a disaster would be worth it. However, I remain conflicted as it’s still too ambiguous for its own good, even with making for fresh cinema.
Fire Will Come: Conclusion
The efforts of Oliver Laxe deserve their praise. Obviously, the Cannes judges for the Un Certain Regard section saw something of worth in his film enough to reward it, and there’s nothing preventing one from indulging in the nature shots or atmosphere that tries to get everything brewing. Having an eighty-minute runtime for what hints at a lot of thematic material is hard to pull off, and unfortunately, this leaves Fire Will Come with the impression of more being left unexplored in the name of keeping it brief. Something like this would benefit greatly from being twice its length, even if it ends up consisting of more of the Galician vistas.
Fire Will Come was released at the Cannes Film Festival on May 21, 2019, and was released in the United Kingdom on March 20, 2020.
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