Viewers obsessive about spoiler alerts will be thwarted by the very title of “Fire Will Come”: You know exactly what climax is coming in Oliver Laxe’s rustically beautiful rural parable, but its dreamy, mesmeric power lies in the waiting. An exactingly paced slow burn before it becomes, well, a very fast one, this second feature from the Franco-Spanish filmmaker confirms all the poised formal promise of “You Are All Captains” and “Mimosas,” while bringing greater depth and generosity of human observation to his rich, abundant mood-harvesting. Following the daily travails of a convicted pyromaniac as he attempts to resettle in his family farmstead, “Fire Will Come” may have limited commercial potential, but its appearance in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard sidebar — where it deservedly won the runner-up Jury Prize, following “Mimosas'” 2016 Critics’ Week triumph — represents another step toward major auteur status for its unobtrusively gifted helmer.
Though the documentary underpinnings of Laxe’s previous work remain — once more, he favors non-professional actors in their own environs — “Fire Will Come” is the least experimental and most straightforwardly narrative of his features to date, bearing grassy traces of the Taviani brothers’ simplest works in its organic minimalism. While his first two features shared a Moroccan milieu, “Fire Will Come” takes the French-born, internationally raised director to his parents’ homeland of Galicia: an autonomous region of north-west Spain, its verdant, mountainous landscape minimally troubled by modernity. Laxe films it with the warm, intimate sense of place and community you might expect given his first-hand connection, though the faintly haunted, questioning quality of his previous cultural explorations remains. That’s fitting, given that the film’s protagonist is something of an alien in his own backyard.
An uncanny note is struck in the opening images, as the camera drifts impassively over a misted forest at night, while a discordant, rumbling ripple gradually disrupts the foliage. Magnificent eucalyptus trees begin falling like dominoes, seemingly by strange force of nature, until a bulldozer is revealed as the culprit. Man and land are at odds from the outset, though we’re reminded that the felled eucalypti are themselves aggressive non-indigenous invaders of the territory. They don’t quite belong, and neither does Amador (Amador Arias), even if Galicia is his birthplace: Coming back to his native village after two years in prison for arson, he wears the gaunt expression of a man condemned, not released.
We learn he was jailed for setting a fire that blazed through an entire local hillside, but Laxe and Santiago Fillol’s spare, bony script is slow to dole out details and circumstances, while Amador himself is far from a forthcoming protagonist. It’s through very gradual observation that we assemble his damaged interior life: In particular, his near-silent interactions with his frail, elderly mother Benedicta (Benedicta Sanchez) point to a lifetime of hard labor and tough love. It’s to her scraggly, three-cow farm that he returns, and the two live peaceably hand-to-mouth, but it’s a spartan, emotionally famished existence. Amador’s criminal past may be something of a mystery, but it’s not at all difficult to see how he became such a reticent introvert.
Other villagers are warily welcoming, despite a hint of bad blood over his crime, but he keeps to himself; there’s a glimmer of human connection with Elena (Elena Fernandez), a kindly vet who helps him free a trapped cow, but he’s too shy to build on it in what Laxe himself has termed a “dry melodrama” of withheld feelings and tears. Restraint is the cornerstone of his filmmaking too: Shooting in a Super 16 format perfectly suited to the film’s earthy locale, cinematographer Mauro Herce captures the rough, fertile beauty of the region without undue touristic prettiness. There’s no elvish fantasy in the film’s tactile, worked-over greens, while a panoply of straw yellows never quite gives way to magic-hour gold. (The vivid wildfire we’re waiting for is another matter entirely.) Cristóbal Fernandez’s rhythmic, loping editing is vital in maintaining the film’s eerie, spell-like hold over long passages of essential inaction.
Laxe’s blend of classical and popular music cues, meanwhile, is consistently inspired, and in one case dazzlingly counter-intuitive. In the film’s most purely lovely scene, as Amador and Elena drive back from their bovine rescue mission, she turns on the radio to fill the hesitant silence between them: Of all songs, Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” plays, with its extravagantly poetic ruminations on a kind of romance that Amador seems unlikely ever to know. Rather than remaining with them, the camera drifts to the back of the car, resting instead on the cow’s serene, oddly soulful expression. People and animals emote with equal, taciturn gravity for much of “Fire Will Come,” which in turn gazes back at them with equal fascination — it’s an aptly democratic study of an ecosystem that exists in languid, fragile balance until reckless human impulse intervenes. Even as Amador’s gentle nature reveals itself to us, the film’s title hangs over proceedings like a nervous threat.