Thursday, 6 August 2015

the burning

not that one.

the burning tells the story of a mysterious stranger (gael garcia bernal) who pledges to help a farmer's daughter (alice braga) avenge her father's death and protect her land from some very bad men.

if you have ever seen a western, or a revenge film or any combination of the two you will have already seen a variation of this film. bernal is the man with no name, of possibly supernatural origin that suggests he is more high plains drifter/pale rider than the outlaw josey whales. braga is a typically feisty female lead (so of course there is an obligatory sexual assault that almost made me switch of) who does at least get in on the action towards the end, the villains are typically villainy, and it ticks all the narrative beats at all the right moments, as you would expect. and yet, it manages to do all this in a way that feels profound, contemplative and at times even fresh.

it achieves this in a couple of ways, firstly in the script. there isn't one. i mean, obviously there is, even silent movies had scripts, but here there is barely any dialogue at all. so if you're one of those crazy people who struggles with subtitled films you have nothing to worry about here - there are about ten lines of dialogue in the whole thing and you can probably cope with that. what we get in place of dialogue are amazing, luscious, narrative visuals. i'm a huge werner herzog fan so i'm all for a good south american jungle movie and there is certainly a lot of jungle on display here. this is one of those films that really exudes what it's like to be in the location, in that the sounds, smells and sensations of being there really come out of the way it's shot. it's a beautiful film to look at and the filmmakers know it, so they give the audience more than enough opportunities.

the actors are great, particularly bernal who really carries the film. he does a good job playing the action hero and despite the fact that most of the bad guys tower over him he really convinces he can take them. he also plays the shane card really well, holding off on a violent response until totally necessary. braga provides good support in a fairly thankless role, but for me the real star was the mono-syllabic bad guy played by claudio tolcachir. we never find out anything about the bad guys really, only that they've been doing this for a while, and in a way they're almost like the predators in the jungle - animals acting on pure instinct. tolcachir does add a certain world-weariness to his role and comes a across as someone you do not want to mess with. he steals every scene he's in with his silence and in a film that's pretty much silent anyway, that's a real achievement.

the burning is paced like an art film. there are huge stretches of silence, even when characters are talking to each other, which they do on very rare occasions. for that reason it is actually quite shocking and surprising when the violence happens. while it becomes a full on western in the final act, the first big fight scene is more rambo than rawhide. bernal's character sets traps and stalks his prey through the jungle, throwing spears and taking out a small army while remaining unseen. the final battle is pure leone, complete with the obligatory close-ups and shades of morricone in the score. this contrast between slow-paced environmentally-concerned art film and derivative action movie is an odd juxtapostion, with the action almost undermining any message or theme the film attempts to deliver on the destruction of the environment or what men will do for greed.

ultimately it was the contrasting styles that didn't work for me. whenever the film feels like it's approaching something interesting, it undermines itself with a shot or a moment that's throwback to something we've seen a hundred times before. if this were a low-budget action movie these moments of homage would seem at home, but here they are jarring and distracting. i can't believe i'm saying this, but i would have been more satisfied with a film in which no one was shot, because i feel like there is a great film here that's overshadowed by the legacy of a thousand much better westerns that did it first.

the burning is definitely worth a watch - it's pretty to look at, the actors are great in it and there are some interesting ideas at play. at the same time, it's kind of throwaway and feels at times like a wasted opportunity to do something truly profound with an amazing location.

arrow films release the burning on dvd and blu-ray 10th august 2015

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