Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja screens tonight and Thursday night at the 52nd New York Film Festival. Cinema Guild will release the film theatrically.
Like the second half of Gomes’s Tabu, Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja renders its colonial setting with techniques from the beginning of cinema right up to its bleeding edge, so that watching it one feels at once transported to the past, and on the precipice before an onflowing (alternate?) future. The aspect ratio is 4:3, with rounded corners like a faded postcard; the blocking is deliberately stagey, with characters often planted in the middle of the landscape for extended dialogue scenes, or else with shot and scene length timed to their movement from one edge of the frame to the other. But the subtle reframings, and fluid pans, from a stationary camera position, reveal the flexibility of Alonso’s grammar, while his use of extreme depth and offscreen space is sometimes snort-out-loud funny. A postmodern appropriation of The Searchers, in which a father tracks the unbottled genie of his daughter’s sexuality across a wild frontier, the film sands its template bare and twists and prods its allegory, setting its Western out in real Patagonian locations—stunning beaches, plains, deserts and lava fields. And yet Alonso and his DP Timo Salminen often stage scenes in close quarters, tightly framing 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.
Viggo Mortensen, speaking Danish and Spanish, plays “Dinesen,” an engineer accompanying a Spanish army unit at an underpopulated, end-of-the-world Argentine outpost during the 1880s cleansing of 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 a young, angel-faced soldier ghost out of the camp, he takes sword and six-shooter, mounts horse, and follows her. Sweating in layers of bulky long johns, and sporting a droopy, weeping mustache, Mortensen carries the film, his human grumbling and surprised, rageful violence conveying the sense of a nervous, basically average man caught on a journey into his own heart of darkness. Increasingly, as the other characters drop away, Mortensen has nothing to play against but nature and himself.
Alonso is easily lumped in with the slow-cinema auteurs of the international fest circuit, and indeed, though following a strong narrative line, Jauja (the title refers to a variation on the El Dorado myth) does so at its own pace, equal parts drawn-out, ravishing landscape shots taken from a distance, and static accounts of fumbling behavior. But though slowed down, the movie is hardly stripped bare: its disintegrating plot, mirrored by a landscape that seems increasingly volcanic, eventually arrives at some pretty far-flung metaphysical precincts. The presence of a shaggy dog becomes increasingly symbolic, in a couple of different senses.