Oliver Laxe’s Fire Will Come opens somewhere in the mountainy Spanish region of Galicia in a nighttime forest. We see a strange light passing through the trees from above; it could be a helicopter or maybe something otherworldly. The silence is broken by crunching, cracking noises. The trees begin to topple. It’s revealed that monstrous bulldozers are rolling through the forest, but they soon come to a stop as solemn grand music invades the soundtrack. One almost expects to start to hear the voice of Werner Herzog, making gloomy pronouncements about the madhouse clash between man and nature. And while I can say that Herzog doesn’t appear, Laxe here comes as close to just about anyone at evoking the Herzog aesthetic.
Arriving as his third directional effort, Laxe’s film comes across as a quieter, more conventional type of art film parable when compared to his previous works. Yet one might even go so far to say that the straightforward plot — about an introverted, middle-aged pyromaniac who returns to his rural community after two years in prison — makes it easier to appreciate its documentary qualities as both a steep, rugged portrait of farming life and an ethnographic record, with a cast that mixes professional and non-professional actors and dialogue in Galician, a language more closely related to Portuguese than to Spanish, most even considering it a dialect of the former.
After the aforementioned opening and a similarly abstract sequence of a parole approval, we meet Amador (Amador Arias), who has come home to live with his elderly mother, Benedicta (Benedicta Sánchez), at their old farm, which appears to exist somewhere far beyond the limits of wireless service. Though quiet and gentle, Amador seems all too aware of his reputation as the local firebug. Avoiding contact with the neighbors, he prefers to spend his day tending to his mother’s cows. One can’t help but feel a connection between this patient, muddy toil and the analog values and grainy details of Mauro Herce’s naturalistic 16mm cinematography.
The region of Galicia accounts for over half of all the forest fires in Spain, a problem that is partly blamed on the invasive eucalyptus trees that were planted during the long dictatorship of Francisco Franco. Given that the Franco regime actively suppressed the Galician language, it seems pretty clear that Laxe is drawing some parallel about the destruction of communities (though Laxe was born in France and is based in Morocco, he comes from a Galician family). However, Fire Will Come is for the most part an evocative waiting game, its mood punctured only by a quirky diegetic deployment of the Leonard Cohen song “Suzanne.” Whether Amador is involved or not, the prophecy of the title will be fulfilled.
It’s during the eventual blaze (which was shot during an actual wildfire) that the filmmaking leaps into the elemental. Fire, with all its unpredictable patterns of movement, can be something of a euphoric power when captured on film, and here Laxe and Herce take the leaping orange flames and dangerously glowing cinders towards the scale and volatility of cosmic forces. The locals futilely try to beat the fire back with branches while a farmhouse is engulfed in flames. Compared to this scale of destruction, the community’s resentment of Amador — not to mention the predictable ironic conclusion — feels even pettier. While quiet, slow-moving, ambiguous character studies arrive in the arthouse circuit every year and are a dime a dozen, Fire Will Come arrives as one of the few that remind us that there are things out there that still feel as big as myth. Boasted in mysterious, tactile minimalism, Fire Will Come arrives mesmeric in its deliberation, capturing human observation in a rich, mood-harvesting nature.
Fire Will Come is available in Virtual Cinemas