Review: Fire Will Come (Oliver Laxe)

Fire Will Come, the newest film from Oliver Laxe, opens with one of the most powerful scenes in recent years: the destruction of a forest of eucalyptus trees by bulldozers in a remote part of Galicia in the middle of the night. Underscored by an intense sound mix, the machines slowly demolish the trees, one by one, in a fateful manner, without any appreciation for the life or the benefits that they bring to the world. Laxe uses this metaphor of the destruction of life to create an extremely powerful and poignant film about cultural extinction in the modern world and the perils of climate change and how destruction can lead to more destruction.

Following the visceral opening scene, Laxe introduces us to Amador. With slouching shoulders and a weathered face, Amador has just been released from prison after many years, having been sentenced for the crime of arson. He travels back to the rural house of his elderly mother, Benedicta, who loves her son unconditionally. Amador had previously worked as a forest warden and it remains unknown during the film if he had actually committed the arson, as forest fires are very common in Galicia. In the Q&A after the screening at NYFF Laxe stated that Galicia has some of the highest levels of forest fires in Europe for a variety of reasons: farmers create controlled burns to rejuvenate their land, politicians produce fires to deflate or inflate the price of wood, and activists set fires in the area to support political positions such as independence or more autonomy of Galicia from Spain. It’s never made apparent by Laxe if Amador caused the blaze that sent him to prison or if he was simply accused and tried for something he did not do. Because of this it’s quite possible that Amador’s withdrawn demeanor is a result of having been falsely accused.

Through the central part of the film Laxe depicts the everyday nature of life in the quiet and hilly Galician village. Amador and Benedicta care for their cows and pastures as Laxe films many pensive moments of the two living in their house and caring for each other while the seasons change and time passes. Importantly, there are many scenes with neighbors rebuilding a house that had been destroyed in a fire, quite possibly the fire that Amador was convicted of causing. Many of these scenes in the film’s middle section simply reflect on the passage of time and the daily lives of people living in rural surroundings. Laxe’s grandparents were from this same village in Galicia and he embeds this section of his film with much warmth, tenderness, and authenticity.

The final third of the film features another visceral and powerful scene, possibly more intense that the forest destruction that opens the film. In this sequence a fire engulfs the forest at sunset, during the golden filming hour, and firefighters rush to defeat the fire and to save villagers who live close to the flames. Much to their dismay, they are unable to stop the fire from ravaging the land and destroying much of the forest. The locals also attempt to put out the flames to keep the fires from spreading to their houses and ultimately the house that was being rebuilt is again incinerated. Next morning after the fire clears, we see the path of destruction that it brought to the region, and in one excruciating shot, a charred horse struggles to find its way out of the ashes as the villagers look on. Also, equally as devastating, villagers beat up Amador in the middle of the street, accusing him of starting the fire.

Laxe filters much of the film through the themes of cultural extinction and human destruction of the environment. Many Galicians are attempting to hold onto their identity against greater Spanish nationalism which can be linked to recent independence-related events in Catalonia. Likewise, tourism remains a major economic stimulant in Spain and the locals were attempting to rebuild the house to bring more economic prosperity to the region. Ironically the house gets destroyed by the fire, a fire that may have been partially caused by the destruction of the invasive eucalyptus trees that were demolished in the opening scene. The trees represent the outsider or foreigner that could be attempting to dislodge the Galician culture. Thus with the destruction of the trees by humans to preserve the past they unwittingly have created the environment for a fire to occur. The fires symbolize a greater call against climate change. Much like the title of the film, Fire Will Come, climate change will come, with nothing stopping it. Humans will be impacted, attacking others and blaming others, as Amador is attacked at the end of the film, and the innocent and animals will also be caught in the destruction. With this symbolism Laxe creates an eviscerating proclamation of the damage humans are causing to the planet.