The familiar volatile passions of cinematic portrayals of Latin-American ardour may lie at the heart of Juan Schnitman’s latest feature, The Fire (2015), but they – and it – are twisted into something raw and utterly compelling. There’s a permeating feeling of unease from the very first frame; a locked bird’s-eye-view shot of two people lying in bed. Marcelo (Juan Barberini) lies on his front, dead to the world; Lucía (Pilar Gamboa) is on her back, staring unblinking up at the ceiling. Her eyes burn disconcertingly through the camera lens, but her anxieties remain tantalisingly ambiguous and will remain so throughout the emotional oscillations to follow.

In a bravura example of single-take performance, Gamboa begins to give voice to Lucía’s inner turmoil when she ramblingly confides in her doctor. It’s a scene in which her every movement and note of inflection conveys her crippling anxieties and her unmooring from her partner. She’s in the doctor’s surgery after coughing up blood at work, but the cause of her symptoms is also left unknown – with the test results still due when the credits roll. Perhaps she is pregnant, or perhaps her physical deterioration is a manifestation of the strain of the relationship. This is equally is evident in Soledad Rodríguez’s cinematography which adopts a shaky handheld camera not just to suggest immediacy as social-realism is wont to do, but to impregnate the action with a combustible and frenetic energy. This begins as soon as the couple leave their bed in a play-fight that hums with an underlying aggression, constantly threatening to tip over into violence.

The narrative takes place on what should be a joyful day – Lucía and Marcelo are signing the lease on a new home – but happiness is a long way from anyone’s minds except in the abstract. When the signing is delayed for twenty-four hours, Agustina Liendo’s screenplay follows the two characters and interrogates their fractured relationship, questioning whether their continued cohabitation is more habitual than desirable. Where Lucía’s disquiet comes largely from within, Marcelo’s in conversely externalised with his temper a problem at work and the deposit for the new house – provided by Lucía’s father – weighing heavily on his shoulder.

Issues like this provide a chance to paint a portrait of modern Argentina but this is absolutely backdrop to the unfurling relationship. Gamboa and Berberini are both absolutely terrific in what develops into a distressingly intense battle of wills without every sacrificing the intimately physical way in which they communicate. An argument on a roadside leave her with a bruised arm and him with a cut on his face – a gun secreted in the closet seems to be calling out to Chekov and the trip to the bank to withdraw their deposit achieves almost the potency of a heist movie. The problem is the pay-off, though. While Liendo’s script ends the only way it ever could, there is a slight sense of anti-climax that undermines what is otherwise a striking and thoroughly engrossing drama.

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Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson