Jauja Dir. Lisandro Alonso

[Cinema Guild; 2014]

Styles: revisionist Western, existential journey
Others: Stalker, Gerry, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

If Gerry were reshot with a colonialist subtext and a sense of humor derived from Looney Tunes, it would look something like Jauja. Director Lisandro Alonso is a regular feature on the festival circuit, known and equally renowned and scorned for a long-take slow cinema that’s short on dialogue and big on landscape and non-professional actors (Liverpool, Freedom). Jauja, though, boasts a marquee star (Viggo Mortensen), an awesome backdrop (Patagonia), trippy nods to the porousness of time and memory, and the sort of revisionist Western tropes that send film buffs into a delighted tizzy. For all its elusive dream logic and grueling pacing, the film is weirdly appealing, and even more weirdly hilarious.

The setting is some point in the 19th-century, where an effort to dispatch an indigenous population of “coconut heads” is underway. The soldiers are a melange of European and South American lieutenants and colonels, who laze about awaiting further orders and a ball to be hosted by the Minister of War. There are rumors that a general has descended into the desert, crossdressing and mad. As sea lions bleat in the backdrop, an unsavory officer masturbates in a tidal pool, and then asks the daughter of Danish Captain Gunnar Dinensen (Viggo Mortensen) if the captain’s daughter Ingeborg (Viilbjork Mallin Agger) will serve as his date to the ball. She, however, has her sights set on his handsome and lowly assistant, Corto (Diego Roman). Shortly after a halting conversation with her father, where she tells him that the nearby desert landscape “fills her up,” Ingeborg sneaks away in the night with Corto and her horse.

So begins Dinensen’s slow, existential journey into the desert, as a man of a patriarchal and imperialistic society encounters sensations and actions that defy rational logic. Jauja can’t help but beg comparison to Heart of Darkness or The Searchers, but the political dimensions of the film are nearly ornamental. Alonso seems more concentrated on the actions of individuals: a daughter who abandons her family for lust; a father entering the void to find her; the bandits who take advantage of his increasingly desperate state. Dinensen’s adventure, which pointedly begins in mossy, verdant terrain and becomes increasingly more gray and rocky, is punctuated by a series of blackly comic encounters that begin with off-screen wails. In one, he finds a dying man and is forced to finish him off. After he walks off screen, the dark arm of a native reaches into the frame and grabs the dead man’s gun, and then his hat. Later, Dinensen is stripped of his possessions, and Alonso pans to a man riding off with his horse. The natives keep playing Tweety Bird to the Sylvesters in uniform, a running joke that recalls the linguistic acrobatics of the word “Gerry” (in Van Sant’s film) as moments of levity in an otherwise barren and febrile narrative. DP Timo Salminen, a partner of the director Aki Kaurismaki, alternates between naturally-lit shots that emphasize the endlessness of the desert landscape and more sneakily artificial scenes that toy with light and shadow. This, along with Alonso’s decision to shoot in an Academy ratio with rounded edges that make some shots resemble matted old photographs, helps to destabilize Dinensen’s journey.

Mortensen handles Jauja’s peculiar, glancingly surreal tone with a knowing, deadpan elegance, muttering as he scrambles up and tumbles down boulders. Alonso and Mortensen lightly mock the figure without sacrificing him of intelligence or dignity. As Jauja progresses, though, they gently nudge him toward a vast beyond, fully realized in two extended, final scenes that I’m reluctant to discuss in any detail. It’s sufficient to say that the first simultaneously explains and then re-mystifies certain elements of the film, while the second, marked by a radical change in setting, more fully embraces the dream logic that Dinensen is forced to become assimilated to. For Alonso, this is a bold and unprecedented narrative gambit, and one I have to confess some reluctant frustration with. The director seems at once to be playing magician and naif, insisting on enigma while taking half-measures to shore up Jauja’s thematic concerns. It’s a mealy-mouthed endpoint to a film that does some novel work agitating its neo-expressionistic Western trappings.

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