Vengeance: Oliver Laxe’s “Fire Will Come”
Oliver Laxe’s Fire Will Come (2019) begins with the same image Albert Serra’s Liberté (2019) ends with: arcs of movie lights undulating through the trees at night. In the first film, the source of those beams is eventually revealed to be the headlights on bulldozers crushing through eucalyptus trees. In the second, the source of the beams is not justified and remains outside the reality of the film. Fire Will Come shows us a village “incel” and firebug who almost literally combusts, and Liberté shows us untempered sexual indulgence between libertines whose results feel just as barren.
The massive eucalyptus trees looming over Galicia are not native to Spain. In the 19th century, a Galician monk brought eucalyptus seeds back home from his mission in Australia. The trees choked the soil dry, made the earth under Galicia a natural fire starter, and pushed out the native flora and fauna. Excessive wildfires now persist in the region to this day (so frequently that Laxe needed only to wait to film a real one for the film). In the same way Spain ravaged cultures for self-gain, the eucalyptus trees suck the life force from everything native to further propagate themselves. But writer/director Oliver Laxe decides not to provide this historical context for laymen so that Amador’s fire starting remains an apolitical and unconscious reaction to his alienation and impotence.
Fire Will Come begins with Amador on his bus ride home after serving two years for setting the village ablaze. His trip back establishes a sense of the region’s daunting verticality; colossal viaducts sit higher than his already steep elevation, and Andreas Scholl’s Cum Dederit from Nisi Dominus, an Australian Vivaldi cover album laid over the scene (in a bit of perhaps ironic Australian borrowing), tips the viewer off on the emasculation to come. The lyrics from Psalm 127, “Cum dederit dilectis suis somnum / Ecce hereditas Domini filii mercis fructus ventris,” or “When he shall give sleep to his beloved / Behold the inheritance of the Lord are children: the reward, the fruit of the womb,” presents the basic expectation to wed and bear children that Amador has not fulfilled in his old age. Scholl’s steamy opera is apparently a movie favorite. It played recently in Spectre (2015) just before Daniel Craig made his aggressive advance on Monica Bellucci, in Narcos: Mexico (2018), and in Maïmouna Doucouré Cuties (2020), where the song is laid over slow-motion shots of excess (the aftermath of Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo’s 40th birthday party in Narcos, and a confetti-filled shopping spree in Cuties).
Amador eventually makes a new friend named Elena, who just moved in from out of town. The viewer knows Elena is a potential love interest to Amador because Laxe plays Leonard Cohen’s song about a manic pixie dream girl, “Suzanne,” over their first meeting,
And you want to travel with her, and you want to travel blind
And you know that you can trust her
For she’s touched your perfect body with her mind
Benedicta hopes the two will elide and begs Elena to stay for dinner when she stops by the house one day. But Elena does not stay for dinner, and when she learns about Amador’s past arson from the villagers, he abruptly presumes the relationship is a nonstarter. Without the historical context, Fire Will Come plays out as the trope of the psychosexual decay of a man who gradually substitutes violence for sex. Another fire will come, as the title gives away, and we watch wondering why and when Amador will start it. Naturally, the wildfire ignites right after Elena and Amador’s falling out.
Dialogue is sparse throughout and much of the film is a compositional mood play between temperatures, cold rain, and the orange flame beneath the stove, heating an otherwise teal frame and the damp socks slung over the stove’s edge. Clouds can hang as low as the ground at these climes, and they smear Amador into a sludge the same way the foggy windows and diffused glass Laxe often puts between him and the lens does. Raindrops dollop over edges of scaffolding and galumph into bowls left out for livestock. Caught in the storm, Benedicta takes shelter under a hallowed tree. Then her and Amador gather around the stove to soothe themselves from the cold again.
Amador reveals little. We do not know his motive for the first fire, and the film does not explicitly show him starting the second. He seems irked by the hotel some of the villagers are trying to build, irked when the spring is clogged and no one cares to clear it, and he tells his mother about how the eucalyptus trees choke the soil — “They’re a plague. Worse than the devil” — but he does not reveal whether or not he knows how they got there. By sculpting Amador around his psychosexual break rather than the larger historical context, and making the film a series of primal actions and weathery moods rather than exposition, Laxe makes Amador’s decision to set fire to Galicia an unconscious act of nature. Amador is made the natural reaction to the now fire-prone ecosystem — the eucalyptus trees’ vengeance on colonial negligence — whether or not he is truly ashamed of the trees’ origin or the tourist attraction the village is doomed to become. In the scene where he and Benedicta watch the news on the small television in their home, he affirms his apolitical and unconscious mode of action. Berenguela, the bell that “rang over Compostela’s sky for more than 250 years” has been replaced by an identical replica cast in Holland. “The [new] bell sounded different, was not as deep, and had less soul” the broadcaster reports on the consensus in the capital. But Amador shrugs, “It sounds the same to me.”
Fire Will Come premiered at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival. Check KimStim’s website for theatrical and virtual streaming in the US.