“Some men just want to watch the world burn” — Alfred, The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008)
The Mexican film All The Fires (Mauricio Calderón Rico, 2023) certainly lives up to its name. You see all types of burning things: cigarettes, matches, footballs, even hands. Fire and its dangerous effects — the way it flickers, spreads, consumes — is a key metaphor throughout Calderón Rico’s debut feature; it’s animating force, its source of creation.
People are attracted to fire for all kinds of reasons. For young teens — aspiring pyromaniacs — it can be a way to draw attention when it seems like the rest of the world simply isn’t listening. For Bruno (Sebástian Rojano), dealing with both the death of his father and his emerging, complicated sexuality — grouping 100 matches together, filming the effects and putting it online — it’s his way of asserting his presence on a confusing, often unfair world.
His mother Inés (Ximena Ayala) makes no effort to understand this habit; instead of sending the disturbed child to a psychoanalyst, she talks about how the further one strays from God, the closer they move into the hands of the devil. And when she brings another man into the household, the stereotypically taciturn and uncaring Gerardo (Héctor Illanes), this only pushes her son to deepen his habit; interrupting Gerardo’s birthday by setting fire to a decoration.
Calderón Rico shoots these scenes handheld with an extremely aggressive shallow focus, not just blurring out city streets and buildings in the distance, but almost everything except for Bruno himself. While this does create a certain sense of intimacy towards our protagonist, it shuns any larger context in which to understand his actions. An overused, frustrating and obtuse stylistic choice that allows the viewer small chance to see Mexico City, the countryside or even other character’s faces, it smothers the film’s cinematic potential as much as any conflagration.
I understand, but I don’t appreciate this style of filmmaking — even if it serves to show Bruno’s disconnection from not only his mother but his best friend Ian (Ari López), who makes a clumsy, ill-advised sexual pass. Hopping on a bus away from both family and his home city, he visits his internet girlfriend Daniela (Natalia Quiroz) for the first time. She’s a fan of his online videos, and they have talked constantly on an internet chatroom that situates the film in and around the now primitive-looking mid-00s. But she has a secret of her own, leading to a pretty milquetoast LGBT coming-of-age drama that is well-meaning and often times well-acted, yet leaves no lasting impression.
So in the end, we barely come close to understanding Bruno’s obsession with fire. He mentions once that it has no shadow. But All The Fires barely has one either, no depth, both literally, in the murky image, and thematically, in a story that flickers rather than sets the heart aflame.