Oliver Laxe’s Fire Will Come unfolds in contested territory. Its Galician setting is home to the area’s long-time inhabitants (human and otherwise), creatures within whom the land pulses like blood. But, as the movie’s opening moments attest, the machinery of industry and development steadily encroaches. In that dark prologue, dozens of trees fall to the ground, yielding immediately to the force of a giant yellow bulldozer. The machine only comes to a halt when it happens upon an enormous eucalyptus, its trunk thick with the markings of age. It seems that even gas-guzzling beasts must bow to arboreal wisdom…or so it seems until a harsh cut takes us directly to a huge stack of papers, produced perhaps from the pulp of the fallen.

The heap of papers is a file on Amador Coro, a middle-aged man preparing for freedom after serving a couple of years in prison for arson. We first see this withdrawn, rugged figure during his bus ride home, not long before he appears at the farm belonging to his elderly but hardworking mother, Benedicta. When he arrives she is hoeing a patch of green in an otherwise brown and yellow landscape. The image is suggestive of both the land’s and Benedicta’s toughness, and, together, those two forces give into one another for harmony’s sake.

Amador and Benedicta, both played by nonprofessional Galician actors, are our protagonists, and, while Amador gets more screen time, Benedicta – stooped, miniscule and squinting – is the star. The film’s funniest (and gentlest) scenes pay attention to her small but insistent gestures. Her winter bedtime routine, for example, involves getting into bed and pulling the covers so far over her head that she completely disappears…that is, until her head and shoulders just barely inch out to turn off the light before she buries herself under her blankets once more.

It’s from actions like these, not long speeches or discussions, that we find out about the characters’ interior lives. Amador’s expert toasting of bread on a wood stove’s surface is another intriguing example of this: we see his isolation and impatience as he waits for his mother to cook the main course, but we also see his delicate touch and instinctual knowledge of sustenance, flavor and heat. The way of life the characters share – putting their livestock out to pasture, maintaining the water lines around their property, watching informative television programs over lunch – is about as unsensational as one can imagine.

This means that the viewing experience involves a great deal of forbearance on the part of viewers as they wait for that titular fire to hurry up and come already. Occlusions accumulate as the seasons change. We discover tensions (between Amador and the townsfolk, especially the handful of craftsmen and builders turning a nearby rundown hut into a B&B for tourists) and questions (why did Amador want to burn shit down in the first place?) but no solutions or even major clues.

This represents a starker kind of filmmaking than Laxe’s previous feature, 2016’s Mimosas. That film, like Fire Will Come, features plenty of mountainous landscape long(ish) takes, but its stylistic gestures are in service to a Moroccan-set Western highlighting dramatic rescues and a ragtag crew of quirky personalities. Laxe’s latest – his first set in Galicia, his home – sheds itself of such conventional trappings and thus verges on total plotlessness.

This narrative void, endemic to these marble-hewn characters and their hardscrabble land, is not the problem, especially for viewers expecting the realist, beautifully photographed series of inscrutable observations on offer here. Instead, the problem is that Fire Will Come remains strangely noncommittal in regards to its subjects and stylistic gestures: it never discovers its own repetitions and routines to mirror the daily habits of Amador and Benedicta. Its most memorable passages, like a music video moment that finds Amador and a new acquaintance listening to Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” from the interior of a truck while the camera floats back to take in a cow’s thoughtful face against a sun-dappled landscape, stand utterly and awkwardly alone. Without other transcendent pop music, the “Suzanne” scene seems more like an evocative fertilizer commercial than an affecting engagement with animal life. It doesn’t help that the rest of the music soundtrack consists of a Vivaldi cantata and some ambient music by Xavi Font – it’s impossible to tell what throughline Laxe imagined for this assortment, so the overall effect is disjointed.

The appearance of fire in the movie’s final quarter is welcome for providing not only an element of danger but also the opportunity to capture stunning images of blaze and fumes. We initially see them from a distance, with fat plumes of smoke tumbling up towards the atmosphere, but, before long, we’re immersed in the brilliant, destructive glow with the ones fighting it, professional firefighters and desperate inhabitants alike. Because these scenes required an actual wildfire, Laxe and his collaborators had to shoot them separately from the rest of the footage. It was certainly worth the wait to capture such sublime, engulfed imagery, but this means that the fire sequence, which involves moving away entirely from Amador and Benedicta, signals yet another harsh stylistic shift in a film that never quite finds its footing.

There is still much thematic interest in these final scenes, which signify a nihilistic intervention in the opposition between living beings and capitalism-fueled deforestation that the early parts of Fire Will Come eerily lays out. The enticing flames take everything away, marking no predilection but for wind and beginning anew.

Harsh stylistic shift marks a film that never quite finds its footing.
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