The dying embers of a love affair are delicately raked over to haunting effect in “By the Fire,” a gentle, carefully observed drama. Helmer Alejandro Fernandez Almendras revisits the rural Chilean setting of his well-received debut, “Huacho,” a visually stunning background against which his characters play out their quiet personal tragedy with as much dignity as they can muster. Similarly concerned with unearthing the transcendental hidden within the everyday, pic is elliptical, oblique and wary of easy emotion, making for demanding but rewarding viewing. Like “Huacho,” “Fire” could raise sparks at fests.
Pic is structured into narrative blocks that correspond to the seasons of a single year. Daniel (Daniel Munoz) and his partner, Alejandra (Alejandra Yanez), are leaving the city for the countryside and are faced with moving out of a house they have been looking after. Formerly a taxi driver, Daniel trades in his cab for a pickup truck and restarts life as a rural laborer, his dreams of city life having faded. It is pretty clear they are living near the poverty line; the only real pleasure in their lives is a stray kitten Daniel brings home.
The two aim to buy a small plot of land from a businessman who is interested only in selling it for profit. But the biggest shadow looming over their lives is Alejandra’s terminal illness, and Daniel’s pressures begin to mount after she becomes bedridden and increasingly demanding. Lacking a TV set with a remote control, Daniel has to go upstairs every time she wants a channel changed. The pic is full of such details, revealing an entire way of life.
Away from the main drama, “By the Fire” reps a quiet study of day-to-day life in rural Chile, and of the stoical manner in which people go about their routines. But as Daniel hacks away at undergrowth with a sickle, the image starts to look like a metaphor for someone working too hard and getting nowhere. It’s a testament to the helmer’s success in creating compassion for his characters that even when Daniel starts avoiding Alejandra’s calls from the hospital or sleeps with someone else, the viewer accepts and understands his reasons.
There are false notes, particularly in a lengthy bedroom scene in which Daniel and Alejandra recall key moments in their emotional development; it’s handy for the viewer, but it’s implausible thatthey wouldn’t have already talked this stuff through. Pic’s episodic structure also means that dialogue tends to supply heavy doses of plot information before vanishing altogether for extended periods. Auds will have to be particularly alert over the first 15 minutes to make sense of what comes later.
Munoz is present in practically every scene, and does fine, understated work as a quiet, tolerant man entering middle age whose patience is slowly being chipped away. Yanez, who established her thesping credentials in “Huacho,” also does good work. Other perfs, mostly from non-pros, are likewise understated and credible, fitting smoothly into the generally low-key mood.
The gentle piano score kicks in at appropriate times to accompany moments of lyricism, which become increasingly frequent as events below the surface pull things inexorably to their expected conclusion.