'Ardor' ('El Ardor'): Cannes Review

El Ardor Cannes Film Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Festival de Cannes

El Ardor Cannes Film Still - H 2014

Despite the fiery passion implicit in its title, this rumble in the jungle lacks heat.

Alice Braga plays a farmer's daughter taken by mercenaries and Gael Garcia Bernal is a mysterious stranger out to save her in this Western set in the lawless Argentinean rainforest.

CANNES – The third Western in Cannes this year, following Kristian Levring's The Salvation and Tommy Lee JonesThe Homesman, Argentinean director Pablo Fendrik's Ardor airlifts the genre -- replete with taciturn hero, embattled frontier holdouts and ruthless guns-for-hire -- into the misty jungles along the edge of the Rio Parana. While distinguished by its lush settings and quasi-mystical vein, the film is somewhat ponderous and low on narrative muscle. But the smoldering presence of leads Gael Garcia Bernal and Alice Braga should give the handsome production a boost in Latin markets.

Onscreen text at the start informs us of ancient rituals by which those who live in the dense rainforests invoke beings from the river to protect them in times of danger. Much of the early intrigue is pegged to the enigmatic introduction of Garcia Bernal's character, and whether he's mortal or magical.

CANNES REVIEW: 'The Homesman'

Credited as Kai though never named in the film, he emerges shirtless from the river with some nifty neo-tribal tattoo work adorning his shoulders. This guy is clearly in harmony with the natural world; he harnesses the medicinal properties of the jungle's plants and animals, makes weapons of its vines and sticks, and experiences its violations like personal wounds. In old-school Western terms, he's the stoic noble savage. Or at least writer-director Fendrik teases us into thinking that.

Three brothers, led by cold-hearted Tarquino (Claudio Tolcachir), work as mercenaries for companies burning down the jungle and replacing it with lucrative pine and soy plantations, evicting local self-sustaining farmers by any means necessary. After forcing one such farmer, Joao (Chico Diaz), to sign a false bill of sale, they then murder him in front of his daughter, Vania (Braga), and abduct her.

PHOTOS: Cannes: The Complete 2014 Official Selection

It becomes disappointingly clear that Kai is not some powerful river god when he remains in hiding, watching as these crimes take place. But he patches up the wounds of the farm's other resident, Jara (Lautaro Vilo), then sets out to track the mercenaries and rescue Vania, narrowly saving her from rape.

Having set up the action with plenty of atmosphere and tension, as well as a vivid sense of the jungle as a living, breathing entity, Fendrik allows the film's momentum to dissipate as it shuffles toward the inevitable final showdown. Kai's evident reluctance to kill serves little purpose beyond buying narrative time. However, the lingering midsection, before he and Vania return to the farm, does provide captivating close encounters with a jaguar, whose habitat is threatened just like that of the local farmers.

CANNES REVIEW: 'The Salvation'

Fendrik handles the climactic action with confidence, as eight mercenaries close in on the ready-and-waiting Kai, Vania and Jara, ending in a rifle duel in scorching sunlight right out of the classic Western playbook. But while there's some novelty in using genre conventions to contemplate the sin of taming a wild frontier, the reverential film takes itself far too seriously; it ends up being neither sufficiently inventive nor revisionist to surmount its archetypal cliches.

Ardor benefits from the fluidity and grace of Julian Apezteguia's composed camerawork, and the pounding score by Sebastian Escofet and Julian Gandara works hard to up the dramatic impact. Garcia Bernal (also a producer), Braga and the rest of the cast are called upon mainly to project silent intensity, which they accomplish with conviction. But ultimately, one wishes Fendrik had maintained the ambiguity of the Kai character, and pushed the mystical elements further, perhaps into magic-realist territory.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Out of Competition)

Cast: Gael Garcia Bernal, Alice Braga, Claudio Tolcachir, Chico Diaz, Jorge Sesan, Lautaro Vilo, Julian Tello

Production companies: Magma Cine, Participant Media, Canana, Bananeira Filmes, Manny Films, Telefe, Aleph Media

Director-screenwriter: Pablo Fendrik

Producers: Gael Garcia Bernal, Juan Pablo Gugliotta, Nathalia Videla Pena

Executive producers: Jeff Skoll, Jonathan King, Pablo Cruz, Axel Kuschevatzky, Vania Catani, Philippe Gompel, Birgit Kemner

Director of photography: Julian Apezteguia

Production designer: Micaela Saiegh

Costume designer: Kika Lopes

Editor: Leandro Aste

Music: Sebastian Escofet, Julian Gandara

Sales: Bac Film

No rating, 101 minutes