That’ll Be the Day: Jauja

by |
03/11/2015 7:03 AM |
Image courtesy of Cinema Guild

Jauja
Directed by Lisandro Alonso
Opens March 20

In Jauja, Lisandro Alonso renders a colonial-era setting with techniques from the beginning of cinema right up to its bleeding edge, so that watching it is at once like being transported to the past, and standing on a precipice over a thunderously onflowing (alternate?) future.

The film is shot in an archaic 4:3 aspect ratio, the corners of the picture rounded like a faded postcard; the blocking is stagy, with characters planted in the middle of a landscape for extended dialogues, or else with shots or scenes didactically timed to their movement from one edge of the frame to the other. But subtle reframings and more fluid pans, from a stationary
camera position, subvert the proscenium staging, revealing the flexibility of Alonso’s film grammar, while his use of extreme depth and offscreen space is sometimes snort-out-loud funny. Jauja set in real Patagonian locations—stunning beaches, plains, deserts and lava fields—and yet Alonso and DP Timo Salminen often shoot in tight quarters, before natural backdrops that hide the sky; characters’ faces are brightly and artificially lit, creating a halo-like effect which, along with the artificial contrasts of the spot-lit nighttime scenes, makes the film seem to be unfolding in a backlot of the mind.

The narrative is an appropriation of The Searchers, in which a father tracks the unbottled genie of his daughter’s sexuality across a wild frontier, but Jauja is a Western in the sense that the terrain it traverses tests the ideal of the Western rational man. Viggo Mortensen, speaking his native Danish and Spanish, plays Dinesen, an engineer accompanying a Spanish army unit at an underpopulated, end-of-the-world Argentine outpost during the 1880s ethnic cleansing of the region’s indigenous people. Though he’s fusty and civilized in his interaction with the rougher Spanish speakers, Dinesen’s buttoned-up affect is strained by his indolent teenage daughter; when she and an angel-faced soldier sneak out of the camp, he takes sword and six-shooter, mounts horse, and follows her.

The specter of primal violence looms via a legendary bloodthirsty native bandit leader—though when this rumor is finally confirmed by celluloid, it feels like, like everything else in the movie, languorous, hushed and ghostly, as if even at this remote date already an apparition from the land’s vanquished past. But as other characters drop away, Mortensen has nothing to play against but nature and himself. Sweating through layers of bulky long johns, his mustache drooping and weeping, Mortensen’s human grumbling and surprised, rageful brutality convey the sense of a nervous, basically average man caught on a journey into his own heart of darkness.

Alonso is easily lumped in with the slow-cinema auteurs of the international fest circuit, and indeed, though following a strong narrative line, Jauja does so at a pace given over to the elements and random chance—part drawn-out, ravishing landscape shots taken from a distance, part deliberately static accounts of fumbling behavior. But though slowed down, the movie is hardly stripped bare: as Mortensen picks his way across a landscape growing increasingly jagged and volcanic, he and the disintegrating plot eventually arrive at some pretty far-flung metaphysical precincts. Alonso’s evocation of a particular historical time and place, always so exquisitely wobbly, topples in a jumble, and the presence of a shaggy dog becomes increasingly symbolic, in a couple of different senses.