At the heart of Ardor is the kind of old-fashioned mercenaries-versus-landowners scenario that Allan Dwan or Jacques Tourneur would have made efficient work of back in the studio era—tales best told as terse western potboilers that reach the finish line short of 90 minutes. Pablo Fendrik’s film, meanwhile, broods along as if it’s expressing something monumentally important with each slow-as-molasses camera move. The whole film could be characterized as a tedious stream of instances when unsatisfying, go-nowhere flurries of action resolve back to ponderous stoicism. Wordless trudges through dense vegetation get interrupted routinely by bursts of viscera-spilling guerilla combat, such as the many instances when an out-of-nowhere spear juts through a torso or a booby trap clamps down on a leg.
Ardor’s silliness is best crystallized by a scene midway through, when the taciturn rainforest dweller who’s been helping a family of poor Argentine farmers ward off a band of pitiless gunmen manages miraculously to emerge alive from a dead-meat situation. Kaí (Gael García Bernal) is canoeing feverishly away from the bad guys, all of whom are heavily armed and seemingly hell-bent on terminating anyone brave enough to get in the way of their land seizure. Because of the indifferent lensing (the focal lengths are short enough that distance doesn’t register) and preponderance of close-ups, it’s not clear how far Kaí is from the shooters, but one suspects the space is condensed enough that landing a bullet in Kaí’s head wouldn’t be too much of a stretch of their professional abilities. Nonetheless, the men bafflingly elect to punch bullet holes in his oars instead, presumably for the sole reason of elongating the movie’s build-up to its Leone-lite final duel.
Led by the lanky Tarquinho (Claudio Tolcachir) and a stubby, unnamed sidekick played by Jorge Sesán, the interchangeable, homogenously malevolent mercenaries are portrayed as more or less without morality (when they first raid the farmers, Sesán’s character offers to chop heads off without hesitation). They have dead-eyed malice to spare, but they could probably benefit from some improvement in their line of work: It’s never clear what they stand to gain by not going on a murder streak in this lawless land, nor is it apparent why they’re constantly wandering the forest, other than the obvious motivation that Fendrik loves the longueurs in spaghetti westerns.
The central feud between Bernal’s shirtless man of nature and these comically simplified villains looks inane enough filtered through Fendrik’s laborious filmmaking (which plays like the moody opening scene of Los Muertos stretched out until its scant traces of implied drama completely evaporate). But the conventionality of Ardor really starts to pierce through its self-serious veneer with the emergence of a thinly sketched romance between Kaí and the farmer’s daughter, Vania (Alice Braga), who’s kidnapped early on and predictably drooled over by her captors. Their courtship, conducted through hushed murmurs and sullen expressions, is cold and lifeless, rewarded by only a brief bit of carnal intercourse in the forest that probably should have made them sitting targets. Kaí also has a psychic bond with the luminous tiger that terrorizes the villains periodically throughout the movie, but this little dose of corny anthropomorphism arrives too belatedly to sink the already sunk Ardor, which can’t quite frustrate through narrative detours when, in fact, the whole film’s composed of dilly-dallying toward a foreseeable conclusion.