Dir: Juan Schnitman. Argentina. 2015. 95mins

El Incendio 1

The postponement of a young couple’s appointment to sign the contract on a new apartment acts as a catalyst for catastrophe in Argentinian director Juan Schnitman’s claustrophobic indie relationship drama. The handheld camera and a preference for long, roving takes pile a deal of responsibility on the shoulders of leads Pilar Gamboa and Juan Gamberini, but they acquit themselves well in two intense performances that only rarely betray the occasional improvisational drama mannerism.

The Fire remains a perceptive study of a young couple caught between a playful, almost adolescent relationship and the commitments and duties of a working marriage.

Co-produced by Diego Dubcovsky’s BD Cine – something of an Argentinian indie stamp of approval – The Fire (El Incendio) has the dramatic bone structure to appeal to patient arthouse audiences, though the could-be-anywhere urban setting and difficulty in selling a story about an ordinary young couple going through a rough patch will likely confine it to home territory, festivals and some limited play in Latin American speciality venues and seasons.

Opening nicely with what seems an overhead still of Lucia (Gamboa) and Marcelo (Barberini) sprawled in bed – until the still comes to life – The Fire wastes little time sketching in the passionate, petulant, slappy-happy relationship between the young live-in couple before waltzing us through their visit to the bank to withdraw a big stack of money. They need it to pay the balance on the flat they are about to move into, just five blocks from their current one; but as they drive to the appointment, the notary rings to tell the nervous duo that the buyer wants to reschedule for the same time the next day.

Around the crisp wads of pesos that the couple are reluctantly lumped with, tensions flare and break out into rows. Marcelo resents the fact that Lucia’s father is helping them to buy the new place; Lucia resents his resentment. She works in a restaurant, where the macho kitchen camaraderie has a nasty edge; he’s a schoolteacher, threatened by the parents of a violent pupil that he had the temerity to grab hold of.

The film is so laconically edited and sparing with explanations that it takes a while to get the clever game it’s playing with the spaces people live in and pigeon-hole each other in, from the couple’s boxy apartment, the bank vault, their cramped car, to the real boxes that are ready for the removal men, or the shoeboxes that are used to hide the cash and, unexpectedly, a gun. Best of all is the brother’s apartment where Marcelo hides after being chased by that violent student: here, a large serving hatch that bro slips in and out of feels like a portal that Marcelo can no longer cross, leading back to a more carefree time.

It’s uncertain whether all this is intended as some sort of State of Argentina metaphor. Is this a country that has its life packed up in boxes ready to move but is uncertain where it’s going and when? Possibly; certainly, we need that extra depth to make the film more than just a 24-hour glimpse of a passionate but troubled relationship between two not always likeable characters.

But what we get – in the blood Lucia coughs up at work, the way Marcelo’s authority as a schoolteacher is undermined – is very much of the pick-your-own-symbol variety. Still, even taken at face value, The Fire remains a perceptive study of a young couple caught between a playful, almost adolescent relationship and the commitments and duties of a working marriage. The one real misfire is the unconvincing shock ending – a denouement that we don’t see coming because it doesn’t fit the characters the script has so patiently built up.

Production companies: Pasto Cine, BD Cine

International sales: FiGa Films, contact@figafilms.com

Producers: Barbara Francisco, Fernando Brom

Co-producer: Diego Dubcovsky

Screenplay: Agustina Liendo

Cinematography: Soledad Rodriguez

Editor: Andres Pepe Estrada

Production designer: Julieta Dolinsky

Main cast: Pilar Gamboa, Juan Barberini