For the first half of “Ardor” I thought the movie was taking itself far too seriously — but by the time we reached the climactic and fantastically over-the-top showdown, I realized that while the characters were indeed trying to corner the market on smoldering glances, faux-Shakespearean proclamations and in-your-face symbolism, the film itself was just a South American jungle version of Sergio Leone’s beloved Spaghetti Westerns from the mid-1960s.
Looking like a refugee from a boy band reunion or maybe a hipster knee-deep in Burning Man revelry, a ridiculously miscast Gael Garcia Bernal plays Kai, who roams the Argentine rainforest without shirt or shoes, but sporting a nifty tattoo and stylish headband.
Kai is at one with the land. He knows which plants and fruits are edible. He knows how to fashion deadly weapons out of tree branches. He knows how to literally look a jaguar in the eye in a way that makes the jaguar shrug and move on. Imagine if Mowgli were a contestant on a particularly brutal season of “Survivor.” That’s Kai.
(By the way, Kai is the name he has in the credits. As far as I could tell in this subtitled picture, he is never identified by his name in the movie. He’s like Clint Eastwood’s the Man With No Name. In this case, I guess we could call him No Name, No Shoes, No Shirt, No Service — but let’s just call him Kai.)
Anyhoo. Kai emerges from the wild and arrives at the farm owned and operated by the kindly but stubborn Joao (Chico Diaz), who has clearly never seen any movie about the kindly but stubborn landowner who refuses to sign over the deed to mercenaries working for evil businessmen.
In this case, we’re told corporations are burning the jungle and the farms so they can build plantations. These companies have hired professional villains such as the ruthless Tarquino (Claudio Tolcachir), who beheads anyone who resists him, and rewards his henchmen by allowing them to assault any young women they happen upon as they pillage their way through the farm communities.
Kai hides out in the barn while Tarquino and his bloodthirsty crew seize control of Joao’s farm. (It seems like a cowardly act, but as Kai later points out, if he had shown himself at that time, he would have been killed. It would have been a stupid and futile gesture.) The bad guys abduct the farmer’s beautiful daughter Vania (Alice Braga) and drag her off into the jungle.
Writer-director Pablo Fendrik has an ear for corny dialogue, and a keen eye for stunning visuals, as when the mist burns off from the rainforest and certain characters materialize like mythic figures. Braga’s Vania is a caricature, who rewards her rescuer with steamy, mud-covered jungle sex, and issues grave proclamations about exacting revenge on her father’s behalf. Garcia’s Kai is a most sensitive one-man wrecking crew — almost seeming to be on the verge of tears as he plants booby traps, throws hand-tooled spears at rapists and murderers, and uses guns only when his hand is forced.
As the body count climbed, the messages about man vs. nature, and the evil men do, and greed vs. good, and blah-de-blah-blah, faded into the mist, leaving us with a final 15 minutes familiar to anyone who has seen “A Fistful of Dollars,” “Shane,” “High Noon” etc., etc., etc.
Highly entertaining high camp.