Gorgeous cinematography aside, this arduously paced jungle western fails to deliver in almost every other area.
Sound mixing is one of those things that’s easy to take for granted in a film. It’s hardly noticeable when proper mixing produces a good balance of dialogue, background music, and sound effects. But take just one of those elements out of the mix, and the entire production becomes unbalanced, making it difficult to concentrate on the story, or anything else for that matter. In Pablo Fendrik’s Ardor, a slow-burning jungle western, there’s very little substance offered in the film, which only increases the awareness of its poor sound design.
Set in an uncomfortably quiet Argentinean rainforest, a mysterious man named Kai (played by a shirtless Gael García Bernal) emerges from the Paraná River to protect a family of farmers against ruthless mercenaries. These armed men capture the family’s daughter Vania (Alice Braga) as a way to force the family to sell their property. Kai shows up to the rescue motivated by the death of his own family in a similar situation. Preferring to let his actions do the talking, Kai silently defends the land from the gunmen using an arsenal of handmade weaponry and tactical traps.
Most of what’s heard in Ardor are background noises: fire crackling, birds chirping, the jungle floor crunching, and the occasional cry from a gory death. But the film doesn’t have much in the forefront of the sound mix to act as a counterbalance to the ambient sounds. Without enough speaking parts or background music to help keep the sound mix balanced, much of Ardor is noticeably muted. Even the film’s gunfights and action sequences feel surprisingly noiseless, making them come across as dull.
Even without the sound issues, the fight sequences are so painstakingly unrealistic they’re hard to take seriously. At one point, Kai escapes in a canoe from not just one but two men shooting at him from point-blank range, yet they only manage to put a bullet hole in his canoe and shoot the oar out of his hand. And when Kai gets the brilliant idea of laying down flat in the canoe, the gunmen immediately throw in the towel and stop shooting. It’s a scene that would feel more at home in an old cartoon.
While most of the film involves characters either hunting or being hunted, it unfolds like a slow-motion chase. Everyone lacks the motivation to get to their destination in any kind of hurry. And fight scenes go unresolved for plot reasons, making Ardor drag on needlessly in order to fill time. With proper pacing, these moments could have had tension and felt more cinematic.
One redeeming quality of Ardor is its attractive cinematography. Taking advantage of the lush tropical backdrop, the film captures the sun-soaked jungle and its dense vegetation as if it were a character itself. There are also some captivating close-ups of a roaming jaguar, whose spiritual bond with Kai adds a mystical element to the story.
Ardor attempts to create a modern twist on the western genre by using a jungle setting and adding in some magical realism, but it falls short due to poor execution. Although it provides plenty of atmosphere, the film severely lacks in just about every other area. Not even a gifted actor such as Gael García Bernal (No, Bad Education, Y Tu Mamá También), who’s usually great in everything, can elevate a film that offers so little to work with. The result is an eco-friendly jungle western with a tedious narrative, predictable outcomes, confusing allusions, and an underwhelming conclusion.