Incendio (1974)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Herbert P. Caine is the pseudonym of a frustrated academic and genre movie fan in Pennsylvania. You can read his blog at https://imaginaryuniverseshpc.blogspot.com.

Incendio is a brief but disturbing documentary distributed by the National Fire Protection Association documenting the Joelma Fire in Sao Paolo, Brazil. In February 1974, the Joelma Building, a twenty-five-story skyscraper, caught fire on its twelfth floor after an air conditioner short circuited. Due to poor construction facilitated by lax construction codes, the fire spread rapidly through the upper floors of the building, blocking people’s means of escape and resulting in over 170 deaths. Until 9 / 11, it was the deadliest skyscraper fire in modern history. Incendio covers these events in graphic detail, with the somber atmosphere heightened by an unsettling electronic soundtrack.

Part of what makes Incendio such a disturbing watch is that it avoids the sensationalism of films like Mondo Cane and Africa Addio. Rather than wallowing in the carnage caused by the fire, the documentary takes a more clinical approach, laying out in detail just how such a catastrophe happened. The exterior of the building was constructed of concrete and withstood the fire. However, the inside had wooden walls and cellulose fiber ceilings, as well as flammable rugs, curtains, and shelves. There was no sprinkler system or compartmentalization to prevent the fire from growing once it started, nor were there any plans for evacuating the building. There were only four elevators and some stairwell, all in the center of the building. Even the air conditioner which started the fire was fitted with the wrong type of circuit breaker. As the narrator puts it, “The Joelma Building was a fire-resistant, reinforced concrete shell which had been filled inside with combustible material.”

This impersonal approach makes the film all the more chilling, as describing how it happened in detail raises the question in the viewer’s mind of just how safe the buildings they live and work in are. Although the narrator is quick to inform us that American building codes would prevent anything like the Joelma fire from happening here, the often-lax enforcement of regulations in the United States, especially since the Reagan Era, and disasters such as the Station Fire give one pause. Recent fire disasters in other first world countries, such as the Grenfell Tower Fire in Great Britain, also lead one to cast a wary eye at tall buildings.

This clinical approach does not rob the film of the ability to shock, however. Towards the end, the film includes footage of people leaping to their deaths from the higher stories of the building and dead bodies on the sidewalk. Although the film does not linger over this footage, sights such as a bloody dead person receiving last rites from a priest will remain with the viewer long after they’ve watched the short, as will scenes of people flailing like rag dolls as they plunge to earth. The footage of people falling is, if anything, more disturbing than the footage from 9 / 11, as we get much closer views of the people descending. Even more disturbing is the revelation by the narrator that many of the people actually jumped after the fire had been extinguished because the remaining smoke led them to believe the skyscraper was still burning.

The short is all the more effective because of its synthesizer soundtrack, which has an eerie doom-laden quality. The theme played over animation of the fire’s beginning and spread is particularly, bringing to mind the incursion of some alien creature in a science fiction film. The composer, Robert Ceely, unfortunately did not do many soundtracks. However, he composed an opera and a ballet and had a successful career as a music professor.

Being a short, Incendio does not appear to have had any type of official VHS or DVD release, although some YouTube commenters claim to have seen it running on afternoons on PBS during the 1970s. (Hmm, some kids probably got “treated” to this film while tuning in early for Sesame Street.) However, it can be found here on YouTube.

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