Oliver Laxe’s new film “Fire Will Come” has a fitting and powerful title. It’s both an immutable truth in certain regions and a portent of things to come, depending on the speaker it could read as wisdom or a threat. Laxe’s film uses a dreamy minimalism to explore that most fundamental conflict of man versus nature, but also the tensions of a man struggling against his own nature.
The idea of conflict with nature is introduced immediately, with an atmospheric prologue that sees a eucalyptus grove consumed by what first seems to be a beast from hell, but is actually a human tool, a bulldozer. While undeniably slow-paced with a light narrative, Laxe’s mesmeric images have just enough thematic heft for the audience to enjoy ruminating over these irresolvable conflicts.
After making a film in Morocco, “Fire Will Come” sees Laxe return to his ancestral homeland of Galicia, a rural district of northern Spain. The story’s protagonist, Amador (Amador Arias), is also making a homecoming to the region, after serving several years in prison for starting a fire that caused substantial damage in his hometown. A gaunt, withdrawn man, Amador returns to his three-cow family farm to live with his elderly mother Benedicta (Benedicta Sanchez), who is somehow even more gaunt and withdrawn. As they eke out a hardscrabble living from the dusty terrain, Amador’s crime and his time in prison go, like almost everything, unmentioned.
As barren as the land is, their emotional landscape is far more barren still; part of Laxe’s project seems to be showing emotionally stunted lives, thoughts, and feelings that go unshared and wither on the vine. One example is an emotionally pregnant car ride with a kind veterinarian Elena (Elena Fernandez) who tries to make a connection with Amador, putting on Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” to fill the emotional distance between them. Yet Amador is unable to reach out, and can only meekly comment that he doesn’t understand Cohen’s words.
While Laxe’s non-professional actors in their natural environs do evoke a rustic soulfulness, his emotionally and psychologically opaque style allows the audience to see the characters with a philosophical distance. Laxe shows how Amador and Benedicta live off the land just as previous generations have, while others around them seek to turn the land into something consumable, either as raw materials or as a tourist destination. Laxe doesn’t quite beatify nature, however, and calls into question its benevolence and stability with an exchange noting that the lovely eucalyptus trees we see are in fact an invasive species with ravenous roots that overwhelm and kill local plants.
As Laxe warned at the onset, the fire eventually does come, in a haunting finale that reminds the audience of the power and terror of nature. If fire is inevitable in nature, so are dark suspicions in human nature, and Amador suffers violence at the hands of his angry neighbors, whether he deserves it or not. The dry, fire-ready terrain evokes the emotional aridity of the characters; in both situations, a tiny spark can cause enormous damage. “Fire Will Come” thrives on the power of what is unsaid, the things that go ignored until they grow into a mighty roar. [B+]