Tribeca Film Festival

Pirópolis Review: Valparaíso on Fire

Observing firefighters and cultural unrest in Chile

6 mins read

(Chile, 73 min.)
Dir. Nicolás Molina


Setting the sky ablaze with his unique cinematic style, the latest documentary from Chilean Nicolás Molina (Gaucho Americano) embraces the heroism of the Pompe France firefighting company. Located in the historic port city of Valparaíso, Molina follows the determined assimilation of the francophone firefighters with the Chilean counterparts. Remarkably, the members of the brigade are all volunteers. Molina’s documentary Pirópolis showcases the unabashed resilience of the firefighting company, as they serve to protect their community. Throughout the film, we’re introduced to a handful of characters. Molina highlights the relationship between French firefighter Alain Baptista Grimani and Chilean captain Héctor Casacuberta. Within their international partnership, the two brave men work together to save the lives of countless civilians. New firefighting methodology is introduced to the Chilean volunteers by the French company in their hopes of potentially saving more people from collateral damage.

The documentary meticulously documents the team’s gallantry through minimalist editing and camera-movement. Pirópolis captures its firefighting sequences with stationary shots and delicate pans. The technique allows Molina to frame the pandemonium and the natural order between the firefighters and their handling of the flames. The static composition permits a more controlled editing approach, allowing the chaos to waver with the pace of the subjects’ movement. The sedate editing style juxtaposes the intensity of the firefighting sequences while honing in on their courageous acts.

The minimalist direction punctuates the humanity of the passionate team. In a humorous scene, Molina places his camera at the brigade’s dinner table. The communal toast leads to intoxicated celebration, with one of the volunteers singing Edith Piaf’s “Non, je ne regrette rien.” The Chilean workforce chimes in, clapping their hands with gusto. The brigade’s canine companion Capón sits patiently at their door, locked away from the celebrations.

Molina evidently examines another flame that has engulfed the city of Valparaiso. Pirópolis connects the relationship between politics and fire. During one harrowing scene, Molina documents a chaotic demonstration. We hear citizens protesting the recent drafting of a new constitution in the country. The protests turn violent, as the fascistic police force retaliates against its own citizens. During the scene, Molina’s safety is compromised. The director suddenly breaks his stationary position, fleeing from the clutches of a state-sponsored militaristic threat.

Fire burns in the streets of Valparaiso. The operations of the brigade coincide with the heated violence. They run into burning buildings as the militant police fend the streets. The film abstains from explaining the political values of the brigade’s staff. Instead, Molina relies on juxtaposition for commentary and frames Chile’s social unrest through television screens. In the background, news broadcasts contextualize the evolving political tensions. In Pirópolis, the working class of Chile are the people who are forced to extinguish the flames of systemic malpractice. The simplicity of the intertwining narratives offer a greater thematic scope to the political issues at play.

When compacting his tight 73 minute runtime, however, Molina frequently deviates from his observational portrait with needless factoids. Conversations regarding the integration of women volunteers and Casacuberta’s retirement plans add needless filler. While the feminist subject matter is undeniably important, the tangents fail to complement the established structure. The sudden narrative shift hinders the emotional vulnerability behind the firefighting sequences. The hyperspecificity of the observations also deters Molina’s focus. Pirópolis boastfully sticks to its cinéma vérité form, where the viewer is forced to connect the dots regarding missing context. For example, the reasoning behind Pompe France’s presence is never fully explained. Information regarding climate change, governmental funding, and Valparaiso’s geography are neglected from the conversation. Molina favors haphazard objectivity over engaging storytelling.

As the eucalyptus leaves ignite the flames of a dangerous forest fire, the humanitarian stakes behind the natural calamity are rarely mentioned. Last summer, the wildfires took the lives of 131 Chileans and many more homes. For a film that centers itself around life-or-death situations, the documentary proves too inconsistent to clearly communicate its urgent message while attempting to reconcile with Chile’s political and environmental climates. Unfortunately, the material lacks focus. The documentary tosses and turns between different storylines, while neglecting important context. Pirópolis regretfully embraces spectacle over anthropology.

Pirópolis premiered at the 2024 Tribeca Film Festival.

David Cuevas is a filmmaker and writer based in Ottawa, Ontario. With his limited time, he can be seen trekking between Toronto and Montreal to avoid the cataclysmic mundanity of the National Capital bore. You can also find the man of the hour at prestigious film festival events around the globe, with prior journalistic history with festivals such as Cannes, Berlin, Sundance, IFFR, and TIFF. During the hot summer nights, David works as an associate programmer for the Ottawa International Animation Festival. David has written for various publications including POV Magazine, Next Best Picture, In Review Online, The Playlist, and ASIFA. He is also the Festivals Editor for FilmHounds Magazine. David funds his short film Ouvre on the side. David Cuevas was last seen as a filmmaker at the 2023 Fantasia Film Festival with his short film Avulsion.

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