Ardor is a straight-up revenge picture, complete with grindhouse-level violence and gore, decked out in ecological trappings. Writer-director Pablo Fendrik’s action-thriller centers on a mysterious man named Kai (Gael García Bernal) defending a farmer’s daughter (Alice Braga) from murderous land poachers. The story is intended as a commentary on the injustices the inhabitants of the jungles near Argentina’s Rio Parana suffer at the hands of greedy city dwellers, who are always looking to push the locals out and seize their territory.
But this thin, sometimes silly movie is basically a western set in a rainforest, hampered by some risibly implausible moments that should have been excised, such as the scene in which Kai and Vania, the young woman he’s helping, have sex in the jungle just hours after she watched her father murdered by machete and narrowly avoided being raped. Fendrik takes great care to show that Vania is the one who comes onto Kai and not the other way around because Bernal’s character, who we first meet as he emerges from a river, shirtless and barefoot and godlike, has only one dimension: Heroic.
Kai uses bamboo stalks as spears and a tree vine as a garrote to fight back the gun-toting intruders. Occasionally, he rolls himself a smoke using tree leaves. When he sleeps, a wild jaguar prowling the area keeps watch over him. Katniss Everdeen is lucky Kai doesn’t participate in the Hunger Games because she wouldn’t last ten minutes against him. The casting of Bernal helps: He’s a magnetic, unassuming actor with a propensity for starring in films with a social or political message (Rosewater, No, Blindness), and he keeps Kai humble and vulnerable, prone to fear and panic just like anyone else.
Despite the prevailing silliness, Ardor is still compulsively watchable. What Fendrik lacks as a screenwriter, he makes up for with his command of visuals — one shot, in which a large cloud of smoke drifts back to reveal a man holding a rifle, is particularly striking. He’s also got a knack for economic storytelling: The movie is devoid of a single scene of unnecessary chit-chat. Claudio Tolcachir, who plays the chief baddie Tarquinho, has a face made for villains — handsome yet tinged with menace and danger. The moment you see him, you know he’s a man capable of horrible acts. But like the rest of the characters in the film, Tarquinho is too shallow and thin for the actor to do anything with him. Ardor is never boring, but it’s never all that engaging, either. Here is a movie that ends with a can’t-miss scenario — a siege on a farmhouse in which the heroes are vastly outnumbered and outgunned — yet still fails to ever quicken your pulse.
Cast: Gael García Bernal, Alice Braga, Claudio Tolcachir, Chico Diaz, Jorge Sesan.
Writer-director: Pablo Fendrik.
A Participant Media release. Running time: 100 minutes. Violence, gore, sexual situations, adult themes. In Spanish with English subtitles. In Miami-Dade: Tower, O Cinema Miami Beach; in Broward: Cinema Paradiso Hollywood.