The Burning (Cert 15)
1 Disc Blu-ray/DVD (Distributor: Arrow Films) Running Time: 101 minutes approx.
In the Argentinean rainforests of Rio Parana, the natives are said to pray for assistance from “beings” of the rivers during times of crisis. A shirtless shaman named Kai (Gael Garcia Bernal) wanders into the shabby homestead of a tobacco farmer (Chico Díaz), his daughter Vânia (Alice Braga) and helper Jara (Lautaro Vilo).
A group of vicious land grabbers, headed by Tarquinho (Claudio Tolcachir), descend on the farm one night and force the farmer to sell by holding Vânia hostage. Once the farmer signed, the gang kill him, shoot Jara for dead and leave with Vânia. Having sat back and watched the carnage, Kai heals Jara then sets out to rescue Vânia.
The third film from writer-director Pablo Fendrik appears to have high ambitions but doesn’t know how to reach them. I hate to be so negative so early in a review but this rainforest set pseudo western baffles the audience more than it fulfils its action adventure promise. The problem begins and ends with the flimsy script that does nothing to establish any of the characters or their motives – Kai isn’t even named until the credits roll – while the story is covered in the above summary with little else to add.
If Kai is supposed to be a mysterious or at least ambiguous character this doesn’t come across at all, making for one of the least engaging protagonists for a supposed action film. Kai rarely speaks and when he does he tends to mumble something about answering calls from troubled people or how he is more at home in the jungle than in the city. This may make him sound like a modern day Tarzan, complete with no shirt and bare feet, but the comparisons definitely end there.
Vânia is equally one dimensional, being the sole female presence in the film (aside from a previous captive of the gang who was savaged by a tiger), who thankfully is not presented as a sex object although she does inexplicable bonk Kai during a brief rain storm, which is ill advised when a gang of armed hunters are after you. But there is not much else to her either. Even after witnessing her father’s death she remains largely non-plussed save for her small contribution to the finale.
As for Tarquinho and his gang, who give the impression of being the Mexican equivalent of rednecks, they are evil because they carry guns and ruthlessly kill people. That is all the story we have about them and even that is divined by their behaviour only and no explored history of their wrong doings. Why they want the tobacco farmland or indeed any of the property around the rain forest is never declared making their motives clear as mud.
While the rainforest location is superbly shot and Fendrik is keen to show off its primordial beauty on every occasion, while using it to create a suitable sense of claustrophobia during the scenes when the gang are hunting our heroes. As visually enchanting as the forest is, Fendrik doesn’t concentrate as much as what is happening in and around it, reducing much of this film to a state of inert dullness. Even the oddly hypnotic sounds of the jungle dwelling critters are absent, leaving us to suffer in literal silence.
If the brazen declaration on the DVD cover of “Rambo Done 21st Century Style” drew you to this title then I’m afraid you will be in for a big disappointment. This film moves incredibly slowly with far too much dead air and lack of any story progression, let along action. We are teased a few short bursts of activity here and there as Kai turns from pastoral tree hugging pacifist to an SAS elite on the turn of his heel, with some good old fashioned booby traps but these moments are at a premium until the final act.
Fendrik tries his best to channel his inner Leone for the climactic showdown, complete with cod-Morricone musical accompaniment, and finally we have something to sink our teeth into. With a now armed Kai bedecked in an overcoat, Vânia’s late father’s Stetson hat and a handkerchief to cover his face to combat the gas Tarquinho has set off, the energy level finally reaches first gear for this surprisingly entertaining and well-staged shoot out.
It is however a little too late. Without sufficient reason given for us to care about why this is all happening, we can only enjoy this on a purely superficial level. In a situation where emotional investment is crucial, it is remiss of an experienced writer like Fendrik to allow such a fundamental oversight to occur but the damage has been done.
Kai seems like a role wasted on someone of Gael Garcia Bernal’s status, but he is a producer of this film so he clearly believed in it. Unfortunately he does little to make Kai more than a sullen, mumbo jumbo spouting hippy and his transformation from peaceful enigma to a raging killing machine is handled with no rhyme or reason.
As Vânia, Alice Braga is the glammed down eye candy who again is a blank slate for the most part but does avoid the damsel in distress cliché fairly early on. Any hopes of chemistry between Braga and Bernal are sadly killed off almost instantly. Of the villains, Claudio Tolcachir as Tarquinho is the only one not portrayed a stereotype.
Despite having all the right components in place The Burning fails to make use of them. It is not a bad film as such, rather a dull one that is unsure of what it wants to achieve. By shifting aimlessly from a meditation on man’s connection with animals and nature to a western style revenge drama – albeit one that is light on action – Fendrick is unable to engage the audience sufficiently to make this a worthwhile watch.
Rating – ** ½
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