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'Jauja': A Land Of Plenty, But Hard To Find

Viilbjørk Mallin Agger and Viggo Mortensen in <em>Jauja</em>.
The Cinema Guild
Viilbjørk Mallin Agger and Viggo Mortensen in Jauja.

Predicting year-bests in March is a recipe for eating your words, so I'll just say this: I can't imagine more than a couple of movies surpassing Lisandro Alonso's Jauja this year (it's certainly better than anything from 2014). And we'll be incredibly lucky to receive anything as visually stunning.

Jauja is set in the 19th century in Argentina's Patagonia region, where the Danish Captain Gunnar Dinesen (Viggo Mortensen) is stationed with his daughter, Ingeborg (Viilbjørk Malling Agger), and a small group of Argentine troops working to exterminate the indigenous tribes living in the interior desert. There's a faint historical connection here—Argentina's so-called "Conquest of the Desert" did target the aboriginal population in the 1870s—but the ties are loose at best, and come undone completely when Ingeborg runs off with a young soldier named Corto (Misael Saavedra), forcing Dinesen to take off in pursuit.

The film is framed in a 4:3 aspect ratio and, most strikingly, sports rounded corners on its images. That relatively constricted vision (somehow the rounded corners highlight how quickly the world slips out of view as the camera pans) is offset by the incredible depth that Alonso and masterful cinematographer Timo Salminen produce in their shots. In the open desert, fading gradually from sharp clarity in the foreground to the soft blur of the horizon, the images seem to connote infinity.

The depth also impresses because Alonso uses it so well, holding his shots long enough so characters can enter from or ride off into the deep background of the image. It's also a fitting effect to convey the desolation of the desert into which Dinesen ventures, and in which he quickly becomes stymied by men who steal his rifle and horse and an increasingly dry, mountainous, unforgiving environment that threatens, as one character puts it, to swallow him up.

Jauja is the first of Alonso's movies to feature an actor with anything resembling Mortensen's star power, but its themes and moods won't surprise anyone familiar with the director's work. Beginning with 2001's Freedom, Alonso has repeatedly focused on the journeys and lives of solitary men, characters with well-stocked guilty consciences and tastes for self-reliance. Given the choice between solitude and society, primal human nature and civilization, Alonso always veers toward investigating the former, but he's less concerned with how these ideas are opposed than how they shadow each other, how each implies and contains the other.

Jauja is the best expression yet of that worldview. Life and death, the ocean and the desert, dreams and reality, past and future all blend together and at moments become indistinguishable from one another. The film is expansive, pushing the ideas that Alonso has probed in the past further than he has ever taken them.

Alonso's previous movies are stark, concerned with what may seem like sociopathic behavior and harshly limited visions of human life: family, food, work, and basic day-to-day existence are what preoccupy their characters. In fact, a question posed in Jauja—"what is it that makes a life function and move forward?"—could be overlaid onto Alonso's other movies. But rather than seeking the answer only in the most basic human instincts, in characters concerned with little more than getting from one day to the next, Jauja finds Alonso's in pursuit of something more abstract and ambitious. "One man is not all men," says a character toward the end of the film, and, as if that was a lesson to be drawn from his earlier movies, Alonso has taken off in pursuit of humanity more broadly.

For instance, while the taciturn men Alonso profiles in 2004's Los Muertos and 2008's Liverpool are journeying in the wake of haunted pasts — a recently completed jail sentence for murder; the guilt of having abandoned a mother and daughter — in Jauja, Alonso is less specific about what brought Dinesen to Argentina, or what causes Ingeborg to run off into the desert. In fact, it's only after Ingeborg flees that we learn, in a sweet and comical scene, that she and Corto can't even communicate and know nothing about each other. Simple motivations, and one might say explainable motivations in general, have largely been forgone.

Instead, the movie pushes onto a more mystical plane. An opening text explains that the film's title refers to a mythological land of plenty. "All who have tried to find this earthly paradise," it continues, "got lost on the way." And so all the movie's characters—from major to minor, from Dinesen to the Kurtz-like Colonel Zuluaga, whom we never see but who is rumored to have deserted the army and become the cross-dressing leader of a band of thieves—are at once searching and stranded. Dinesen's journey only drives both these realities to the extreme, pushing him further out of civilization, and, seemingly, out of time. Movies about solitude in nature tend to morph into tales of survival; Jauja, to Dinesen's surprise as much as anyone else's, transforms into something more akin to a vision quest.

Still, Jauja does not feel like a grandiose movie; it's one the viewer slowly sinks into, one that isn't so full of itself as to be above jokes and playful mockery, particularly at the expense of the laughably narcissistic Argentine troops. The pleasure of watching it mimics the beauty of its images: you begin in what seems to be a simple Western, but by the end the film has expanded before you in myriad directions. The film is its own journey, and there's seemingly no end to how far you might travel with it.

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Tomas Hachard