Berlin is a monumental festival. The coveted official competition, comprised this year of 23 features by international heavyweights like Terrence Malick and Win Wenders, is only the tip of the iceberg for a slate full of sidebars and special screenings that amount to literally hundreds of films playing over the course of 10 days. One rather significant showcase that doesn’t come with Silver Bears or rabid media coverage but still has all the prestige of the official selection, is the festival’s Panorama section, which this year features an impressive array of Latin American cinema from perennial heavyweights like Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico.
From Argentina, journeyman director Juan Schnitman will have the honor of world-premiering his latest feature, El Incendio (The Fire) alongside another national production by Argentine compatriota, Marco Berger. El Incendio kicks off with the dramatically charged withdrawal of $100,000 from a bank. Lucía and Marcelo are a young couple about to put a down payment of their first home, but after withdrawing the money they learn that they will have wait another day to close the deal. If we have learned anything from Hollywood, it’s that things can only go downhill from there.
Unsurprisingly, it seems Schnitman has eschewed any gross gestures like robberies, lost bags, or other formulaic dramatic hooks that usually accompany large amounts of cash. Instead, the tension that weighs upon the couple is more psychological, as the couple falls into crisis both amongst themselves and with their surroundings. Marcelo, a teacher, is accused of physically abusing one of his young students, Lucía fights with her boss at her restaurant. Resentment bubbles up to the surface when we learn that Lucía’s father has put up the cash for the house. And in the great tradition of therapy-crazed Argentine storytelling, we are treated to a boatload of neuroses and insecurities that rear their ugly heads when things reach a breaking point.
From the trailer, we can appreciate the film’s shaky, handheld camera reflecting the nervous tension that steadily builds toward a climax, with naturalistic lighting that gives the piece an almost documentary feel. Agile editing also reinforces the feeling that a proverbial pot is fixing to boil over as arguments grow louder, and outbursts of violence more frequent. With the $100,000 appearing to be little more than a MacGuffin, it seems rather than a classic thriller we are in the presence of an intimate, Cassavetes-style chamber piece driven by worthy performances by actors Pilar Gamboa and Juan Barberini.
The first review out of Berlin following the premiere is from Variety and it’s on fire (pun intended).
“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.” — Jay Weissberg, Variety