Title: The Burning (El Ardor)
Director: Pablo Fendrik
Major Players: Gael Garcia Bernal, Alice Braga
Out Of Five: Four
The Man With No Name. Shane. The Preacher. Kai. All mysterious strangers, all appearing out of nowhere to avenge, rescue and generally put things right. Hang on a minute ….. Kai?
He’s the central character, played by Gael Garcia Bernal, in what’s been labelled an Argentinian western, The Burning. And, as far as the story line is concerned, he’s something of a close relative to Clint Eastwood’s Preacher in Pale Rider. The first we see of him is his head popping above water in the river that runs through the jungle. We don’t know where he’s come from, but that’s not important. The fact that he’s arrived to help a tobacco farmer and his daughter is, because they’re under threat from a ruthless band of mercenaries who are hell-bent on taking their piece of land. Kai rescues the girl when she’s kidnapped and the two are engaged in a life and death struggle to protect the farm.
Director Pablo Fendrik has deliberately set out to do something different with the western, but without losing any respect for it. The farmer is like the settlers in the old west, but the idea here – and, indeed, Kai says it himself – is that people shouldn’t be in the jungle to take it over. Work a smallholding and be in harmony with their surroundings, yes, but care for it and let it exist in its own right. The mercenaries, on the other hand, have no respect, slashing and burning as they go. With the rainforest generally under threat, this gives the film an environmental angle as well, hence the luscious photography, showing what could be lost and never replaced.
Generally the western analogy is a good fit, but it all unravels at the end, when it looks like Fendrik suddenly panics that his audience doesn’t get what he’s been doing and goes completely over the top. Kai replaces his trousers and headband with a shirt, bandana and stetson for the final showdown with the mercenaries and the whole thing is staged like an old fashioned gun fight in main street. There are prolonged close-ups of people’s faces, very much in spaghetti western mode. In fact, it’s a case of too much sauce on the spaghetti.
There’s minimal dialogue and, although that might sound strange, it’s perfectly in tune with the style of the film. The main characters, Kai and the farmer’s daughter especially, lead isolated lives and only use as many words as they absolutely have to, no more, no less. There’s even less soundtrack as well. Yet sound is incredibly important, on an equal footing at least with the beautiful photography. We are treated to the sounds of the jungle and its many inhabitants. Who would know that a beetle crawling across some dried leaves would make so much noise? It’s atmospheric and, together with the camerawork, accounts for at least part of the film’s seductive style.
The Burning comfortably blends the familiarity of the western with something more contemporary. Which makes it all the more regrettable that the director couldn’t hang on to that subtlety and atmosphere right to the very end.
The Burning is currently on release in key cities and reviewed on the Talking Pictures podcast.