Somewhere between a bucolic documentary and a Bressonian character study, Oliver Laxe’s terse but open-souled “Fire Will Come” begins with a prologue that anticipates the coiled grace of the film that follows. Bulldozers plow down the dark hills of Galicia — the autonomous region of Spain where Laxe’s family comes from, and where the French-born director spent his childhood summers — their headlights shimmering through the midnight darkness so that the forest of doomed eucalyptus trees appears to be underwater. The ethereal sequence builds to a standstill when one of the bulldozers stops at the base of a trunk that it can’t bear to knock down, the machine seemingly awed by the size or self-assurance of what’s blocking its path. We tend to accept nature as we see it before us, even when it stands in our way; even when it threatens us. We don’t tend to extend people the same courtesy.
Rugged, elemental, and restrained to a degree that suggests its director finds poetry in even the simplest things (his camera lingers on rolling fog or the face of a farm animal with a reverence that might prove trying for those not on his wavelength), “Fire Will Come” is a slight but evocative meditation on making peace with something that isn’t possible to understand nor extinguish. It starts with a deceptively incendiary premise: A quiet, middle-aged man named Amador (found actor Amador Arias) is released from prison after serving time for arson, and returns to a mountainous hometown that’s still feeling a bit hot under the collar about the pyromaniac who set it ablaze. From there, the film prepares you for the promise of its English-language title by slowly turning the entire world into tinder.
Amador’s sweet and worried mother Benedicta, played by Benedicta Sánchez, seems to be the only one in town who loves Amador unconditionally, though perhaps the same can also be said of the three cows she keeps at her steep little farm home (this year’s Oscar race for Best Cow is really heating up). As for the others? Well, they don’t go out of their way to bully Amador — this just isn’t that kind of movie — but it’s clear that they’ve cauterized their impression of him in their minds.
With his glowering expression and stringy gray hair that seems wet with kerosene, the village firestarter is lightly ostracized as a nuisance (“got a light?” someone jokes when they see him), but Galicia has been scorched so many times that most people don’t have the energy to make Amador into a true pariah. Fire is an all-purpose tool in these parts, used by farmers to regenerate their land, politicians to manipulate agriculture prices, weather to do whatever it wants. It’s a force of nature these people have learned to live with, and yet Amador is an outcast for being seduced by the flames.
Although what exactly Amador did to earn his reputation as an arsonist remains a mystery, as “Fire Will Come” is considerably less interested in telling a story than it is in waiting for some kind of equilibrium. Even fans of Laxe’s other somnambulant fables (“Mimosas,” “You Are All Captains”) might be surprised by the patience of his latest slow-burn, which recalls the likes of Michelangelo Frammartino’s “The Four Times” in how it sublimates its pathos into pastoral routine. Most of the movie is spent waiting for the inevitable spark, as the average scene consists of Amador walking through the smoke-like fog or eating fresh bread with his mother.
If not for the drama of the film’s classical music, the irony of its plotting, and the small handful of super-real scenes that clarify its concern, “Fire Will Come” might be easy to confuse for a work of non-fiction. The exceptions that prove the rule are unmistakably pointed in a way that could seem clumsy, but Laxe’s storytelling is otherwise so abstruse that it’s hard not to feel grateful whenever he makes things a bit more obvious.
It helps that such moments are beautiful in their own right. One finds Amador lecturing his mom about the pernicious roots of the eucalyptus trees, which weave together underground “like an old bag of potatoes” and “strangle any tree or plant trying to grow” in a way that’s “worse than the devil” (to which Benedicta sagely replies: “If they hurt others, it’s because they hurt too”). Elsewhere, our hero shares a tender moment with an attractive vet who doesn’t know Amador’s deal; they drive beneath a sunset while listening to Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne,” which is one of those songs that could make any movie suddenly tender to the touch. Amador speaks English, but the vet insists there’s “no need to understand the lyrics to get the music.” Cut to: A sick cow vibing hard on the bed of her truck.
That ethos is of course broadly applicable to a film that resists easy interpretation, and hides its meaning (whatever you make of it) behind a green velvet fuzz that doesn’t melt away until the last 20 minutes. But when the fire actually comes, it burns with a documentary-like realism that galvanizes Laxe’s story into something a bit more resonant and accessible than its groundwork might suggest.
Fire itself is antithetical to fakery; digital effects notwithstanding (and there aren’t any here), even the most controlled of flames is hot with its own truth and hellbent on survival. The obligatory blaze at the end of this movie — a real wildfire that Laxe and his crew waited for at the ready — is shot with a degree of chaos that’s equal to the catharsis it leaves behind, and its unyielding nature offers Amador a chance to redeem his own. The poetry of it all is enough to demand a more pronounced emotional payoff, but Laxe is wary of letting this Galician-language movie succumb to more universal film grammar. The result is a short and elliptical tale that unfolds at the speed of life and resolves with the hopeful uncertainty of forgiveness itself.
KimStim will open “Fire Will Come” in virtual cinemas starting on Friday, October 30. Visit KimStim.com for viewing information.