The spirit of Sergio Leone hovers above Argentine director Pablo Fendrik’s “Ardor,” a spooky south-of-the-equator oater — or “machete Western,” if you will — that trades open desert horizons for dense jungle backdrops. With nary a horse in sight, this primordially infused revenge tale unfolds in the present, demonstrating how certain corners of South America are as lawless today as the Old West once was. Fendrik’s unusual genre exercise builds in arduous slow-motion toward a thrilling grindhouse climax, but lacks the hair-raising tension a more unsettling sound mix could create — though a slash-and-burn re-edit following its out-of-competition Cannes bow could salvage its commercial chances.

As is, “Ardor’s” evocative settings — coupled with photogenic co-stars Gael Garcia Bernal and Alice Braga — lend high-impact visuals to a pic that often drags when it should be making the hairs on the back of our necks bristle. In iconic Western terms, Mexican actor Bernal represents a supernatural twist on a familiar archetype: Call him the Man With No Shirt, No Shoes and No Name, a mysterious, half-naked figure who emerges from the river to assist a tobacco-farming family threatened by ruthless land-grabbers.

Kai, as he’s identified in the credits, arrives at a shabby homestead along Argentina’s Rio Parana, where an onscreen prologue explains that natives have traditionally summoned “Beings” from the river to protect them in times of crisis. Things have never been more dire for the people living symbiotically off this land, now that ruthless forces have moved in to uproot both the forests and its inhabitants. Presumably, one of these ancient rituals has drawn Kai forth, though the early scenes are maddeningly hard to follow.

Three men armed with rifles and machetes make camp in the jungle, where a wild tiger has mauled the last woman they took captive. Their leader (Claudio Tolcachir) looks reasonable, but uses intimidation to force the locals into selling their property, then kills or kidnaps them once he has the contract. In time we learn that Kai saw his own family massacred by such goons, and now he appears to feel responsible for rescuing Vania (Braga) from their clutches — a familiar enough Western scenario that he manages to achieve relatively early and with minimal interference.

The couple have celebratory sex, but are ambushed during the afterglow, receiving some well-timed support from the wild tiger. Then Kai goes back to retrieve the bogus bill of sale from the remaining mercenaries, antagonizing the group and attracting even more menacing reinforcements in the process. So far, all this (right down to the “El Mariachi”-esque bad acting) would be right at home in a trashy 1970s drive-in movie, except that Fendrik seems more interested in the rich jungle surroundings than in the generic human struggle in the foreground, alternating between clunky setpieces (such as the sitting-duck rowboat shootout) and long stretches where the characters say nothing.

Even with his trendy back tattoo, the fair-featured Bernal makes an extremely unconventional action hero, and though he sets booby traps and lobs bamboo spears at the merciless enemy, his character is clearly reluctant to be put in such an aggressive position. “Those who live here taught me how to belong to this place,” he tells Vania, underscoring the idea that Kai isn’t some superhuman figure conjured to protect this family, but a custodian of the jungle itself — like the tiger. Judging strictly by the way each shot is framed, the jungle is clearly the film’s true star, which makes the pic’s parting line — “The people who sent them will send more” — as ominous for Argentina as it is for the film’s survivors.

Film Review: ‘Ardor’

Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Special Screenings), May 19, 2014. Running time: <strong>110 MIN.</strong> (Original title: “El Ardor”)

  • Production: (Argentina-Mexico-Brazil-France-U.S.) A Magma Cine, Participant PanAmerica, Canana presentation, in co-production with Telefe, Bananeira Filmes, Manny Films, Aleph Media. (International sales: BAC Films, Paris.) Executive producers, Gael Garcia Bernal, Juan Pablo Gugliotta, Nathalia Videla Pena, Jeff Skoll, Jonathan King, Pablo Cruz, Axel Kuschevatzky, Vania Catani, Philippe Gompel, Birgit Kemner.  
  • Crew: Directed, written by Pablo Fendrik. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Julian Apezteguia; editor, Leandro Aste; music, Sebastian Escofet, Julian Gandara; art director, Micaela Saiegh; costume designer, Kika Lopes; sound, (George Saldanha; supervising sound editor, Julian Apezteguia; line producer, Oriana Castro; assistant director, Martin Bustos.
  • With: Gael Garcia Bernal, Alice Braga, Claudio Tolcachir, Chico Diaz, Jorge Sesan, Lautaro Vilo, Julian Tello. (Spanish dialogue)
  • Music By: