Fire Will Come is a prophetic, arresting and mesmerising love letter to nature by Oliver Laxe.
Dear Mother Earthby Olivia Neilson
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Fire Will Come (O Que Arde) is an arresting, prophetic and brooding study about the impact we have on nature, and nature’s impact on us. Set in a rural community living in the mountains of Galicia in North Western Spain, this is Spanish director Oliver Laxe’s (Mimosas, You Are All Captains) third feature film, and it rightly picked up the Grand Jury prize in the Un Certain Regard category at Cannes last year.
The film is highly stylised, with the landscape taking centre stage and often accompanied by Vivaldi when it is not quietly listening to nature’s sounds. Emotions are pulled back, eyes are cast downwards, smiles are few and far between, but there are moments of tenderness and philosophy made all the more profound by their sparseness.
Our protagonist Amador (non-professional actor Amador Arias), who is something of an unkempt and more dishevelled-looking Javier Bardem, is a pyromaniac who has just been released from prison. An outcast in the village for causing wildfires which the region suffers from anyway, Amador is a walking embodiment of nature – he is at once destructive, vulnerable, sensitive and beautiful.
Returning home for the first time after his prison sentence, Amador’s octogenarian mother, Benedicta, barely lifts up her head from working in the garden, asking him only if he is hungry. Benedicta, played by the magnificent first-time actress in her eighties, Benedicta Sánchez, who won Best Actress at Spain’s prestigious Goya Awards last year and received a heart-warming embrace from Pedro Almodóvar himself, a testament to her performance in the film.
Benedicta and Amador have an almost mute relationship and they quickly go back to their routine of working on the land, milking their three cows, and taking them out to graze. But within their mostly silent relationship, there are tender displays of affection and philosophical insights. Discussing the eucalyptus trees and how they can be harmful to the growth of other plants, “like a plague” Amador explains, as if out of the blue, Benedicta comments “if they hurt others, it’s because they hurt, too”. Laxe masters subtle metaphors, expressing age-old truths in a fresh and original way. Shot in atmospheric Kodak Super 16mm, the film feels like a rare and precious artefact that captures the essence of all living and breathing things.
In a haunting opening scene, trees are unrelentingly mowed down one by one in near darkness until the machinery reaches an ancient eucalyptus tree standing in the forest, its bright lights hovering over it. The driver stops as if bowled over by the tree’s beauty, its age, its history. It’s an evocative opening scene, and it plants Laxe as a director who is highly attuned to the power we have as people over our defenceless environment. The filming of the change of seasons in rural Galicia is a quasi-religious experience in line with the mesmerising beauty of the 1982 art-house staple Koyaanisqatsi (meaning life out of balance). Like Godfrey Reggio’s cult film, Fire Will Come warns against our interference with nature and is a moving love letter to Mother Earth.
In a precious moment of emotional release for the viewer, whose emotions have largely been held back by the Bressonian austerity of the film, Amador gets a ride back with the vet (Elena Mar Fernández) who has helped save one of his cows. Whilst Laxe hints at the vet being a possible love interest, he is more interested in the connection of two souls, and steers the film back towards man’s relationship to nature rather than human relationships alone. The vet chooses to put on some music for their journey as she quickly realises Amador is not much of a talker, and puts ‘Suzanne’ by Leonard Cohen on the stereo. Unexpectedly, Laxe tracks the camera to Amador’s cow in the open-air trailer and films the breathtaking rolling hills and the setting sun behind her. Like Amador, the cow has large brooding eyes, and she looks directly into the camera, as if to question our own humanity. Amador and nature are brought together in a euphoric moment that has been crafted from subtlety and quietness.
In the devastating and absorbing closing scenes, Laxe films real wildfires that tear remorselessly across the forests. Locals try in vain to protect the land and their homes, firefighters work tirelessly, but the fire takes on a life of its own. Up in the sky after the fires have subsided, the sun shines in front of the body of the helicopters, leaving only their tails in view, which hang like crucifixes in the sky. There is something transcendental in Laxe’s film style – he holds back emotions, films the everyday doing, the slowness of existence, and then lets go to really savour and appreciate these rare moments where we get closer to truth. The film is full of subtle power that will sweep you up in its slow burn and blow you away.
Fire Will Come is available on Curzon Home Cinema from Friday 20 March 2020.