The inner conflagration at the core of debuting feature helmer Juan Schnitman’s “The Fire” scorches the lead couple in this powerful two-hander, sending out sparks that singe the atmosphere all around. Sharply scripted by Agustina Liendo, this intense relationship drama about a young couple falling apart on the eve of buying an apartment is a riveting chamber piece of subtle shifts and evenhanded power struggles, keeping audiences guessing with every scene. A large part of its success comes from the superb actors, whose ability to completely inhabit these difficult figures places them at the top of their generation. Euro and Hispanophone sales should be strong, though Stateside exposure may need to rely on Latin American showcases.
While too many indie directors fall back on shaky cameras simply to be generically “of the moment,” Schnitman uses handheld as a natural expression of the crushing tension building throughout his 24-hour tale. From the opening shot, the camera overhead staring down at the sleeping form of Marcelo (Juan Barberini) lying next to a troublingly awake Lucia (Pilar Gamboa), auds sense a deep, unexpressed dissatisfaction. Once they’re awake, their playfulness — he wants to tickle her, she slaps him away — hints at a simmering violence that breaks through on multiple occasions.
This morning they’ve taken off from work to sign the papers for their first apartment. The cash, in neat stacks of $100 bills (one of many coded references to Argentina’s economic problems), is carefully divided into money belts in a scene reminiscent of heist movies. The action is clear but the motivations are not, keeping curiosity in a heightened state that remains strong even once the narrative trajectory is fully comprehended.
What is understandable from the start is that Lucia and Marcelo are on a rocky path. His violence-prone physicality, quick to grab and slap, remains ready to spring up at any moment, but what marks “The Fire” as truly impressive is the subtle way scripter Liendo refuses to make the man the figure with all the power. Each withholds information as a way of excluding the other and maintaining an element of control, and each uses embraces and sex (there’s a deeply disturbing hate-f— sequence sure to divide audiences) to manipulate the other, not in calculated, openly obvious ways, but the shifts in tone are unmistakable.
When the seller postpones for 24 hours, the couple are forced to return to a “normal” day’s routine, but there is no normality. They both go to work, she as a sous chef, he as a schoolteacher, yet violence permeates these locales as well: Escape from tension is impossible, and it’s taking a physical toll on Lucia, who’s coughing up blood. Together they exhibit their worst sides, but their codependence is locked in place and there seems to be no way out.
Certainly Lucia is the more sympathetic protag, perhaps because her desperation is more acute. Marcelo is incapable of accepting criticism, lashing out at her in multiple ways, exacerbated by a feeling of inferiority since she comes from a well-off family. But Lucia is no innocent here, and she’s very much a responsible partner in their tit-for-tat dysfunctionality. Like a master carver, Schnitman slices open Argentinian society, layering it within Lucia and Marcelo’s claustrophobic world.
Many scenes stand out, but there’s one, with Lucia slowly opening up to a doctor (Marcelo D’Andrea) about her sense of despair, that should become a staple for monologues in acting workshops and auditions. Long rehearsals with the two leads paid off in spades, as Gamboa and Barberini are astonishingly good in every frame, their role-specific mannerisms and body movements, along with a painful-to-see anxiety in their eyes, contributing enormously to the sense of realism.
So, too, the visuals, which are grounded in usual late neorealist mannerisms, yet Schnitman knows exactly how and why to use them, with the camera’s nervousness eliding with the protags’ tension. D.p. Soledad Rodriguez keeps the shots tightly oppressive while allowing the actors space to breathe, matching the dark interior spaces with their own oppressive interiority. “I love you” is heard only once, nearly at the end, by which time viewers feel as starved of that sentiment as the characters themselves.