04/22/15 6:15am
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04/22/2015 6:15 AM |
Photo courtesy of Tribeca Film

Far from Men
Directed by David Oelhoffen
April 24, 25 at the Tribeca Film Festival; Opens May 1

Far from Men is a film about a man trying not to take sides in the Algerian war; likewise it balances two distinct cinematic heritages. Its setting, in 1954, positions it at a watershed moment for the postwar generation that redefined Francophone cinema and political engagement, but in charting a journey across a widescreen landscape whose wide open spaces stand in for territory unclaimed by any governing moral authority, the film also showcases the ideological flexibility of the Western.

These days, if you’re going to make a neo-Western, it also helps to have Viggo Mortensen, whose multilingualism and counterculture aura make him a good fit for all sorts of postcolonial transpositions (Far from Men did the festival-circuit rounds at the same time as Jauja). Here, he speaks French and some Arabic as Daru, a fatherly teacher who plays football with his Algerian enfants when not drilling them in the geography of France, a country they’ll only see, if ever, as immigrant laborers.

Seen in long shot at the bottom of a dusty valley with a single green tree in its yard Daru’s one-room schoolhouse, where he also lives, is an oasis of civilization. It’s breached, inevitably, when he, like the homesteader of 3:10 to Yuma, is pressed into the duty of escorting a condemned prisoner to the nearest town.

The Paris-born actor Reda Kateb, who plays Mohamed, the only initially nonverbal murderer, has a wonderful face for a Western, a sun-baked, Warren-Oatesian face. The sparse gestures of both actors fit Morocco’s Atlas Mountains (standing in for the Algerian desert) as seen in writer-director David Oelhoffen’s frequent long shots, in which Daru and Mohamed are like specks of dust kicked up amid the arid brown rockscapes. Variously on foot and horseback, with each in turn in chains, the two overcome mutual resentment, filling in their backstories for each other as they meet obstacles: heavy weather and, instead of cavalry and Indians, French colonial soldiers and Algerian rebels (though the territorial ranchers need no find-and-replace). Everyone has their reasons, but Daru’s encounters with imperial and frontier justice (which echo forward as well as backwards in time in their consideration of the means and ends of violent uprisings) compel him to confront his own past. His ethnic heritage, we eventually learn, is similar to that of Camus, whose short story “The Guest” provides the film’s setup; similar also is his anguish at a conflict from which he has remained virtuously but impossibly uninvolved. As a man simultaneously disgusted at violence and capable of its execution, Daru’s actions ultimately take on the gravity of moral instruction (though it was this premise that was tweaked so effectively in another Western update starring Mortensen, A History of Violence).

Far from Men has a pace to match Daru’s rectitude, the better to appreciate the rhyming of each spare detail. After Mohamed is dropped off at the schoolhouse, Daru starts a fire for the night with a newspaper reporting on the war. Daru’s decency is shown in the food he sets out for his guest; that night, the host grabs his gun when Mohamed rises from his cot and walks outside, but relaxes after he relieves himself and returns to bed. The film is almost wholly unoriginal, but gathers a certain force of purity from its well thought-out pastiche of evergreen elements, like a really good farm-to-table restaurant.

03/19/15 10:00am
03/19/2015 10:00 AM |


The cinema of Lisandro Alonso has always privileged the journey over the destinationhis films tend to feature silent and solitary travellers traversing harsh and desolate landscapes, frequently to no avail. But with Jauja, his fifth and latest film, which opens in New York on Friday, the Argentine director ups the ante of his creative M.O. by obliterating the concept of finality altogether. Named for the town of ancient legend that no man has ever been able to reach, Juaja unfolds in a world removed from the pesky restrictions of time and space.

Casting a professional actor for the first time, Alonso uses a stoic Viggo Mortensen as Gunnar Dinesen, a Danish captain stationed in Patagonia at the end of the 19th century. There are a host of deprived and depraved men lusting after his his 15-year-old daughter Ingeborg  (Viilbjørk Malling Agger), and when she absconds with a young soldier in the middle of the night, Dinesen rides off into a strikingly hyperreal sunrise in desperate pursuit.

Jauja’s minimal dialogue makes it the chattiest film in Alonso’s oeuvre, following a script collaboration with the poet Fabián Casas, but the real alchemy here is the result of the director’s pairing with cinematographer Timo Salminen (best known for lensing Aki Kaurismäki’s work). The square frame, presented in the 1.33 Academy ratio, imposes an unyielding visual border onto an otherwise borderless world, so that movement itself—whether within or beyond the picture’s edges—becomes the film’s primary source of drama. Inspired by the sudden death of the filmmaker’s close friend in the Philippines, Jauja draws heavily on classic Western iconography to create an endlessly hypnotic work about the search for something that’s already long vanished.

We  spoke with the affable Lisandro Alonso from his home in Buenos Aires to talk about everything from the productivity of language barriers to the hidden philosophy of Mad Max 2.


03/11/15 7:03am
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03/11/2015 7:03 AM |
Image courtesy of Cinema Guild

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.