sat 19/10/2019

The Burning | reviews, news & interviews

The Burning

The Burning

Gael García Bernal is the stranger saving farmers from bandits in this jungle western

Between a rock and a hard place: Alice Braga and Gael García Bernal consider tigers and bandits in 'The Burning'

A group of gunmen are roaming the Argentine rainforest jungle, terrorising local farmers in order to obtain the rights to their land. One farmer follows an ancient custom, praying to spirits to send a saviour. When a young stranger strolls bare-chested and barefoot out of the jungle, the farmer assumes his prayer has been answered.

This is the scenario that opens The Burning, a Latin American co-production featuring some of the region’s richest talents, including the Argentine director Pablo Fendrik and his stars, Mexican Gael Garcia Bernal and Brazilian Alice Braga. Fendrik is not a household name, but he’s a fascinating, highly skilled director; and in keeping with his previous work, this is an involving and challenging drama that refashions a genre, in this case the western.

Neither of Fendrik’s earlier films had releases in the UK, which is a great pity Bernal is Kaí, not exactly a "stranger with no name" then, but who certainly comes out of nowhere, seemingly to protect the old farmer, his daughter (Braga) and a labourer who seems to have feelings for the girl. But our assumption that he is some otherworldly creature in human form (prompted by his scanty attire, and the fact that we’ve seen him emerge headfirst from a river) is quickly brought into question when the villains descend upon the farm.

Neither of Fendrik’s earlier films had general releases in the UK, which is a great pity. His debut, El Asaltante (The Mugger) was a spare, taut, claustrophobic, really quite brilliant day-in-the-life of an unusual criminal, who races around Buenos Aires robbing school offices; La Sangre Brote (Blood Appears) was an uncompromisingly ill-natured thriller, in which there is no focal crime, no dry and dusted villain, but the dire, disintegrating relations of a family of sociopaths.

The handling of narrative and actors and atypical approach to genre in both of these films is outstanding. Ironically, The Burning isn’t quite as original or dynamic (such is the way these things work, the much-liked Bernal is the likely reason for the UK release). Fendrik’s opening phase is on too slow a burn, and is perhaps a little too self-consciously portentous, with too many long looks whose meaning dies by the second.

It’s much better once the action gets going, as Bernal and Braga escape into the jungle and slowly turn the tables on their pursuers. Taking its title from the deforestation that is the end game for the land-grabbers, The Burning works very well as a fairly straightforward and very atmospheric chase movie, the violence and tension escalating towards a gripping, western-style finale. Fendrik uses his jungle locations well, submerging his combatants in the verdant, tangled labyrinth, where none of the humans, but a tiger is the dominant predator in town.

Bernal, who is also a producer of the film, is as watchable as ever, albeit hampered by his diminutive stature and innately sweet face – it’s hard to accept him as any sort of action hero, let alone the deity that we’re initially led to believe. Braga, who’s been building a quietly impressive CV since her breakout role in City of God, is more successful as the young woman finally breaking out of the submissive role in the Latin home and finding empowerment in adversity and fightback.

Overleaf: watch the trailer for The Burning

Fendrik uses his jungle locations well, submerging his combatants in the verdant, tangled labyrinth

rating

Editor Rating: 
3
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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