The title is a promise – a threat, even. That everything but the film’s actual celluloid is set ablaze in the final act of director Oliver Laxe’s second feature, Fire Will Come, is no surprise. After Paul Thomas Anderson made good in the finale of There Will Be Blood (2007), audiences now come prepared to see these guarantees fulfilled. As they have before and likely will again, flames engulf the hills of the Galician countryside, as Laxe and his crew position themselves what seems to be dangerously close to an uncontrolled burn of the region. Indeed, according to the filmmaker who waited an entire season to capture a wildfire, this is the case. The embers deep in the brush and whipping feet-high flames are so immediate onscreen, a viewer might find themselves with watery eyes and a tightened chest from the billowing smoke, sweat forming on their brow.
Following the ultimate end of the fire is its aftermath: the local residents scour the scorched earth, still simmering from its chemical change, for signs of life. Only a blinded and scarred horse emerges from the hellscape like a harbinger of their future. Their homes are destroyed – Inazio’s (Inazio Abrao) three-story hillside house collapses like an accordion – but the mystery in the final moments of Fire Will Come doesn’t lie in sorting the wreckage from the salvage. As the provincial town in northern Spain is decimated, the nagging question is what will become of the film’s reserved center, Amador (Amador Arias), an outcast who – with some slivers of hope – has been teetering on the edge of community acceptance before this fire makes his fate more puzzling.
Earlier, the reformed pyromaniac returned home to live with his elderly mother, Benedicta (Benedicta Sánchez), after a prison stint. The details of his crime are never made explicit to the audience, but the townspeople that surround him are fully aware of them. He’s harassed in town, one drunken joker in a group of men asking him for a light for his cigarette. When Benedicta attends the funeral of a recently departed friend, a woman asks her how she’s dealing with Amador’s return, only with a slight twinge of gossipy malice. And during the burial, Amador, who can’t seem to bear to be around these people let alone communicate with them, waits by his mother’s car.
As one might glean from the above, Luxe is working with a cast of nonprofessionals who use their surnames for their characters, but Fire Will Come shouldn’t be confused with documentary. Similar to last year’s similarly earthy Our Time from Mexican provocateur Carlos Reygadas, the Cannes Film Festival Jury Prize winner is most definitely a work of fiction that merely flirts with nonfiction. For all of its verisimilitude for life in Galicia and those who live it, the director, along with his cinematographer, Mauro Herce, takes great pains to turn the terrain into something beguiling and alien. Here the earth is depicted as an unknowable yet living and breathing host to its parasitic inhabitants, and this artful repurposing of the natural world is apparent from the carefully constructed opening moments. Blinding lights illuminate the pencil-thin trees, a dazzling display of dancing light and shadow within the forest.
The sequence is one part spiritually hypnotic Andrei Tarkovsky and another existential dread-inducing David Lynch. However, aside from the slow-burn visual wonders that recall those esoteric arthouse godfathers – so slow burn, in fact, it may be patience-testing for some – Fire Will Come most closely adheres to the cinema of French master Robert Bresson. Not only does Luxe deploy Bresson’s actors-as-models mode – stripping down their performances to nearly robotic behavior to become blank slates for projections – the director is also exploring the limits of faith. Unlike early Bresson (his 1951 film Diary of a Country Priest, in particular) and his tendencies toward the testing of religious faith, Fire Will Come is concerned with finding the breaking points in belief in the goodness of individuals, community, and environment.
Luxe provides no easy compromises in the negotiation between those entities, but his ambiguous final notes are so withholding that they border on frustrating. However, another beat – or even chapter – may be wholly unnecessary because Luxe has already revealed a dour truth throughout Fire Will Come: Often, the unpredictable is also inevitable.