DIRECTED BY: Lisandro Alonso
FEATURING: Viggo Mortensen, Viilbjørk Malling Agger
PLOT: A Danish surveyor tracks his missing daughter into the wilderness.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This slow-paced movie turns weird by the end, but strangeness doesn’t even put in a cameo appearance until the last twenty minutes.
COMMENTS: While Jauja is set in a specific time and place, no one in the movie ever says what that time and place is; they simply inhabit it as their reality. The film’s “meaning,” similarly, is left vague. An explanation for the film’s title, on the other hand, is given in a text prologue: “Jauja” is a mythical paradise, the equivalent of El Dorado, a place ambitious explorers seek and never find. This, along with the colonial dress and a campfire tale about a soldier who was wandered into the wilderness and went mad, immediately brings to mind similar themes from Aguirre, the Wrath of God; although ultimately Alonso’s movie is more oblique and far more restrained than Herzog‘s Amazonian fever dream classic.
Although never specified, Jauja was actually shot in Argentina, and the film could serve as an advertisement for the Pampas Tourist Board. In its ability to capture the country’s strange landscapes— the standing pools of water flanked by mossy rocks, the fields of boulders, the mighty horizons—the film is an undisputed triumph. Jauja is shot in a boxy 4:3 aspect ratio rather than the expected widescreen, with the corners quaintly rounded so that the screen recalls a picture frame. The natural color schemes, particularly the blue midnights and glowing dawns, look brilliantly unreal. Jauja may be too small and peculiar to compete for any major awards, but I doubt we will see superior cinematography in any film this year.
As desolate as Jauja‘s landscapes can be, for most of the running time the film’s plot is even more so. A scene that kicks off the movie’s second act illustrates how unnaturally deliberate the pacing is. Viggo Mortensen’s Danish captain discovers that his teenage daughter is missing from her tent; instead of immediately rushing off after her, he returns to his own tent and spends several minutes calmly examining his weapons and dressing in his formal military uniform. Although not much time is actually lost in the formal procedure, the scene conveys the exact opposite of urgency. In the movie’s middle section, minute after minute goes by with no words spoken; we simply watch Mortensen stumble across the craggy landscape, growing increasingly weaker. (We also watch him sleep). Eventually, he encounters a shaggy dog and follows it back to a cave where he has a very strange encounter with an old woman (which I will not spoil). Things get even weirder for the ending epilogue, a time-bending journey to another world where the film’s earlier motifs—dogs, a toy solider—are recast in a dreamlike fashion.
Many critics compare Alonso’s latest film to the work of Andrei Tarkovsky, for obvious reasons. Although Jauja shares Tarkovsky’s meticulous use of time and strangeness, the Russian master’s films always win out because they end on profound emotional resonances; the Stalker weeping in despair, Kris Kelvin’s decision to play along with Solaris’ delusion. As well-made and thoughtful as it is, Jauga‘s heart is simple—the love of a father for his daughter—and does not approach the emotional intricacies of Tarkovsky. Of course, few do; but Jauja shows you what Tarkovsky may have looked like without his complex understanding of the human soul.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…this hallucinatory head-trip Western remains unmistakably Alonso’s film from first frame to last — a metaphysical road movie in which origin and destination are markedly less important than the journey itself… Alonso saves his most dazzling trick for last: a sudden plunge down a Lynchian rabbit hole that should, by all means, rupture the film’s hypnotizing atmosphere, but instead pulls the viewer in even deeper.“–Scott Foundas, Variety (contemporaneous)