Director: Pablo Fendrik
Cast: Gael Garcia Bernal, Alice Braga, Chico Diaz
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The Man with No Name has been reincarnated in many different forms since A Fistful of Dollars. Now, Sergio Leone’s wandering loner is re-imagined as something more elemental in The Burning, a Western that swaps the plains of the US for Argentina’s jungle.
The landscape may be different but it is every bit a frontier in its own right: a haunting opening tableau sees a forest go up in flames, as the land is torched by those determined to grab it. Introductory titles explain that, traditionally, those in trouble would call upon forest spirits to protect them from danger. And so it is that Vania (Alice Braga) and her father welcome the arrival of Gael Garcia Bernal’s strange figure, who swims into their lives one day. (Perhaps because he lacks a top as well as a name.)
What follows is a cruel scene of appropriation, as the family’s stake in the world is taken from them by force – something that prompts retaliation from this mostly mute outsider. Where revenge is a familiar theme in most Westerns, though, The Burning brings it to us in an unfamiliar form: far from killing natives and taming the wilderness to protect settlers, our hero is protecting the old way of life that is inherent to the land itself.
Bernal is magnetic as the mysterious man, his agile performance and expressive face allowing him to blend silently into the shadows of the trees around him. “Those who live here taught me how to belong to this place,” he tells Braga’s fierce daughter, enigmatically. There are hints that he, too, has lost his farm “a while ago” to the same burning – a seemingly endless march of progress and intimidation. Perhaps he once owned a house and has been surviving in the forest since? Perhaps he is a spirit who has merely felt the loss of each inferno over the years?
Director Pablo Fendrik uses his ambiguous presence to bring the location to life as a literal character in the film; combined with Julian Apezteguia’s stunning cinematography, it underscores the importance of nature to this wild South American west. Here, currents dictate actions and jaguars appear as weapons more powerful than guns or dynamite. The simple eco message lacks the instant thrill and fast pace of Leone’s Dollars trilogy, or the depth of John Huston’s, but the atmosphere is certainly absorbing; a shootout that takes place in the smoke of a blaze rather than the bright open of the desert burns like the climax to a Clint Eastwood movie from 50 years ago. The rest gently smoulders.
The Burning is available on Sky Cinema. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW TV, as part of a £9.99 monthly subscription – with a 7-day free trial.
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