The Ardor

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<i>The Ardor</i>

A punishingly paced, self-consciously arty Argentinean Western about a mysterious do-gooder (Gael Garcia Bernal) who decides to help a terrorized farmer take a stand against murderous land-grabbers, The Ardor tries to make an ill-defined philosophical statement about man, animal and the animal within man, but gets more lost in the weeds than its subjects do in the dense, overgrown rainforest that serves as the movie’s setting. This out-of-competition premiere at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival is steeped in atmosphere but lacking any sort of mooring or punch that would make an audience care—it’s a fine example of cinema that feels like it would connect much better if reverse-adapted into a book.

Not to be confused with Byun Young-joo’s 2002 South Korean import Ardor, writer-director Pablo Fendrik’s film centers around a young man whom the credits identify as Kai (Bernal), but who is essentially The Man With No Name. As a group of armed mercenaries, led by Tarquinho (Claudio Tolcachir), set fire to a hillside as part of their apparent plot to take over as much slightly farmable jungle acreage as possible, Kai scampers away. Shirtless and barefoot, he is taken in by a kindly neighboring farmer (Chico Diaz) and his daughter Vania (Alice Braga). After her father is cut down by the aforementioned mercenaries, Vania is kidnapped. Kai promptly rescues her, and the pair then makes off into the wilderness, trailed by the men with guns.

Bested by Wild Tales as Argentina’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar submission last year, Fendrik’s movie is less methodical cat-and-mouse, and more meandering statement about the avarice of man. It pays rich, obvious homage to classical filmmaking—most emphatically in a willfully evocative finale that apes the square-jawed tropess of Sergio Leone Westerns that are now deployed as visual shorthand in TV commercials advertising canned chili. (Sebastian Escofet’s music for this sequence even incorporates tolling bells.)

Fendrik clearly fancies his movie a mixture of suspense and swollen genre metaphor, but both his writing and his stagings habitually undercut him. His characterizations are wafer thin, which feed a general lack of tension. Kai has a connection to Tarquinho and his crew, of course, but it’s not something that really elevates The Ardor or takes it off in any interesting or different direction. Then there’s an absolutely ridiculous “escape” sequence where Kai rows away down a river while two men unload bullets all around him, finally shattering an oar but not hitting him. This would seem to indicate a more, well, representational or ethereal grasp of action and spatial relationships, but other sequences are constructed more literally.

The Ardor connects best on a visual level. Cinematographer Julian Apezteguia trades in lots of languorous pans, presumably to further emphasize the more ruminative aspects of the material—as well as to convey humankind’s small space in this vast natural expanse, and the vague menace that hangs over its essential out-of-placeness. (Unfortunately, there’s also a tiger that shows up sporadically, to make eyes at Kai and mouth the words “I’m symbolic” at viewers.) Yet, some of the early nighttime scenes, cloaked in shadow and orange candlelight, would make a Renaissance painter proud.

But there’s only so much redolent framing one can appreciate in a movie so sluggishly paced and untethered to intrigue. The performances, too, all suffer as a result of Fendrik having clearly clued everyone in to the fact that they’re not so much making a movie as engaging in an act of cinematic offering and reverence. Hence, everyone speaks his or her dialogue slowly…to illustrate that it is…important and full of…meaning. Bernal has an innate watchability and light touch with his typically smoldering presence, but he’s playing an idea here, not a character.

Those predisposed to swoon at the genre offspring of Westerns and foreign art house cinema, in addition to Bernal completists, may find meager reward herein—but Fendrik’s plodding film will be a chore for everyone else. Grim for only grimness’s sake, The Ardor embodies what it is less adventurous American viewers find so stereotypically precious and off-putting about world cinema.

Director: Pablo Fendrik
Starring: Gael Garcia Bernal, Alice Braga, Claudio Tolcachir, Chico Diaz, Jorge Sesan, Julian Tello, Ivan Steinhardt
Release Date: July 31, 2015

Entertainment journalist Brent Simon is a sworn enemy to auto-play website videos and Time Magazine’s 2006 Person of the Year, as well as a member of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.