‘The Fire’ (‘El incendio’): Berlin Review
Juan Schnitman’s debut charts a watershed day in the lives of a young Buenos Aires couple
The fragile edifice of romance is consumed by the flames of reality in The Fire, a claustrophobically intimate take on the practical and emotional struggles of a couple of young, damaged things to find themselves and to find each other. Two blisteringly intense and committed performances, particularly from Pilar Gamboa, go a long way towards making up for the film’s issues, which include a script which shuttles a little too schematically between inside and outside and too many scenes which feel a little too like an unedited recording of an improv session. But there are still enough sparks flying between the central couple to generate a warm reception from both the festival circuit and from Spanish-speaking territories.
The only moment of serenity in The Fire comes during its opening scene, as Lucia (Gamboa) twitchily lies awake in bed, her partner Marcelo (Juan Barberini) asleep beside her. It’s a still, silent and highly stylized prelude to a film in which hand-held urgency, hysteria and tension are ever-present.
No sooner is Marcelo awake than he is being refused sex by Lucia, the first of several moments of will-they/won’t they sexual tension. They’re due at a meeting with a mysterious man called Paglieri, to whom they have to deliver money which they tuck agitatedly into their underwear. Drugs? Weapons? No, it’s the payment for a new house: but it’s clear that the stakes for their relationship are high.
Paglieri fails to show, unlike the cracks between them. Both are stuck in dead-end jobs. The externally dapper, internally messy Marcelo has serious issues relating to a violence which he’s unsuccessful at keeping hidden - clumsily pointed up by the script by a gun he keeps hidden from Lucia, and which makes an inevitable appearance later -- and, in true macho Latino style, he’s insecure that his woman is from wealthier stock than him. Each is hiding a Big Secret from the other, afraid perhaps of loss: “we’re doing everything wrong”, Lucia tells her doctor, and the viewer sadly nods in agreement.
Neither of the characters is especially simpatico, but both are compellingly intense and energetic, Gamboa in particular putting herself through the emotional grinder at the service of her insecure yet angry heroine. Barberini isn’t quite her match, and at times feels mannered as his intensity is allowed to spiral out of control. But the conversations and the power plays between them drag on just too long, despite the actors’ best efforts becoming wearisome as the drama proceeds.
There is the sense that first-time director Juan Schnitman is more engrossed by his creations than even the actors’ best efforts can make them for the viewer, and sharper editing could have gone a long way towards maintaining a tension which flags significantly over the final half hour - a half-hour containing one stomach-churning scene which, though entirely predictable, is authentically powerful.
The scenes when they abandon the apartment to interact with the outside world are all too brief: in an interesting but under-explored side-story, Marcelo has been accused of abuse by a pupil at the school where he works. In such scenes connections are suggested between the issues of their relationship and out in the wider world, but they remain firmly at the level of suggestion.
The Fire willfully ignores the one big question which too many movies about young couples in crisis ignore: given that they hate one another so badly, then how did they let themselves get in so deeply? They don’t know, and we don’t learn. But that, of course, may be exactly the point of a film that is as intense and driven as its two unfortunate protagonists, and just as problematic.
Production company: Pasto, BD Cine, Los Salvajes Cine
Cast: Pilar Gamboa, Juan Barberini
Director: Juan Schnitman
Screenwriter: Agustina Liendo, Juan Schnitman
Producers: Barbara Francisco, Fernando Brom, Diego Dubcovsky
Director of photography: Soledad Rodriguez
Production designer: Julieta Dolinsky
Editor: Andres P. Estrada
Sales: FiGa Films