O que arde – Fire Will Come

Spain, France, Luxembourg, 2019

Directed by Oliver Laxe

With Amador Arias (Amador Coro), Benedicta Sanchez (Benedicta Coro), Inazio Abrao (Inazio)

Galicia is a Spanish territory standing against the Atlantic Ocean and bordering on the South Portugal. A rather poor rural region with a distinct culture, it is not often surveyed by the arts and the books. It has been able to make sometimes the news outlets’ headlines owing to destructive, spectacular fires.

Some of them are arsons. The man who is coming back to his Galician village at the film’s beginning, has been convicted of such a crime and sentenced to a few years in prison. Now, Amador Coro can resume his old life, living with his mother Benedicta, working on their farm and taking care of their cattle. Mundane gestures, banal incidents (like a cow getting stuck in a pond), small talks: there are no thrilling developments, no surprises, not even a quiet evolution. This is the portrait of a life deep-rooted in the traditional ways of working and living, unconcerned by changes and indifferent to desires.

Standing at the fringe of the human world: Amador Arias (left) and Benedicta Coro

But fire is still there. In a dramatic departure, the film suddenly sets aside Amador and Benedicta’s lives, focusing with striking, terrifying and poignant images on the firefighters’ efforts to put a new forest fire under control and to diminish it, with little success. The morning after reveals an apocalyptic landscape; it also leads to an attack against Amador, as the Coros’ neighbor, Inazio, who has been trying to convert an old farm into a furnished accommodation catering to tourists but watched the fire burned the place down, is dead sure the former arsonist struck again.

It does not go farther than a short-lived brawl. “O que arde – Fire Will Come” could have presented a third part focusing on the search for a scapegoat, righteously casting Amador as a victim of human narrow-mindedness (a previous sequence has narrated how Amador was away in a distant village when the fire began). Instead, the film just records the rage born out of the tragedy, refusing to elaborate and to exploit it.

Actually, that keeps its narrative choices coherent; after all it did not attempt to explain Amador’s past. The key piece of information is readily given in a highly formalized way: his dossier is handled from one person to another, the camera trained on their busy hands, till a few words spoken aloud disclose these are policemen being informed the former convict is back in their district. The scene suggests a conventional character description will follow, along with a plot; but nothing of the kind comes.

What does come is a straightforward, naturalistic chronicle of two persons living at the fringe of the world. Busy with the daily tasks of their peasant life, neither the son or the mother talk much, and certainly not about the past. It is through these tasks that relating at least to part of their interesting personalities becomes possible: he cuts an intensely quiet and sad figure while she is remarkably willful, really practical but increasingly frail; both are plainly, tenderly fond of each other. But they stubbornly keep a distant, forever mysterious element. The film asserts that there are things better left unspoken; secrecy is also a necessary part of privacy, anyway; so it just asks us to get acquainted with the Coros and to appreciate their lives without prejudice – a daunting but rewarding task.

The unexpected swerve into a spectacular, topical development stuns and unsettles. The flames rip through part of the lush, verdant, exquisite landscapes the first part wonderfully captured: a kind of paradise has given way to a real hell. The shocking change highlights the truly appalling impact of the fires endangering Galicia: it poignantly shows how fragile human settlements and lives are. In fact, troubles run deeper than that. The film, trough an eerie and riveting, wonderfully opaque and poetic, overture and a short dialogue between Amador and Benedicta, has pointed to the challenge raised by the growing number of eucalyptus trees in the area, an invasive species threatening the native Galician ecosystem. Inazio’s failure is made even more poignant by the fact he has worked so hard on a project he clearly hopes would help the local economy, following the hint of leaders and experts convinced that tourism is the new rural wealth. The film’s background, subtly painted and never scholarly taught, is the brutal, accelerated collapse of the rural worlds throughout the advanced economies at this point of the 21st century.

Amador, who has been a destroyer of the forest (perhaps to fight against the eucalyptus trees?) and has never believed in Inazio’s project, stands at the end of the day as a rock-solid representative of an old world, stubbornly digging in his heels, untouchable perhaps but also unassailable, a somehow dignified figure in an otherwise tragic and doomed world.

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