How is a man undone by his own will when determined to dominate or control either other beings or the Earth itself? This seems to be one of the (many) significant questions at the heart of Jauja (pronounced ‘How-Ha’), the latest film from minimalist auteur Lisandro Alonso.
Set, one assumes (you can never be too sure with Jauja), in the 19th century, the film concerns a Danish military man named Gunnar Dinesen (Viggo Mortensen), stationed on the coast of Argentina, awaiting orders. He is there with his beloved 15 year-old daughter Ingeborg (the astonishingly named Villbjørk Malling Agger) who presses him to get her a dog that’ll follow her wherever she goes; something he dismisses for when they are back home. When Ingeborg then flees with another soldier, her lover, Dinesen gives chase, ambling across increasingly treacherous terrain on, seemingly, a fool’s errand.
The film follows him doggedly as he pursues Ingeborg like the dog she wished she had, losing his hat and his horse to some violent natives, growing more and more lost and thirsty for water.
Mortensen funnels himself wholly into the role as you’d expect from the renowned method actor. Dinesen is a mannered, stubborn, mildly comical creation, a sad buffoon embarking on an adventure of rationality in a world that flat-out refuses to bow to rules or conventional, reasonable narrative behaviour. His is a journey to the end of narrative, or possibly to the end of cinema itself.
Jauja began life as a collaboration; an idea formed between Alonso and poet Fabian Casas. Casas’ sensibility is felt throughout as the ‘story’ unfurls according to its own inner metronome, more like a dream than any conventionally plotted work of cinematic fiction. It relies not on pace, but on mood and evocation. There are beats to Dinesen’s encounters, but the overall mood is that of a purely experiential exercise.
As such it’s a quixotic film to encounter; at once utterly absorbing and frustratingly slow. Viewers unaccustomed to such a sensibility will need to acclimatise to Alonso’s crawling pace and come to terms with what’s being presented to them.
Jauja has the appearance of a Western transposed to South America, but the reality is far more unconventional. With its boxy 1.33:1 framing, it has the appearance and ethereal sensibility of Carlos Reygadas (specifically circa Post Tenebras Lux) hemming in the more topographical widescreen distractions associated with the likes of John Ford for example. However, if anything, the pronounced borders of the frame only accentuate the impeccable landscapes depicted throughout. Horizons are rarely the focus here. Instead Alonso guides us along Dinesen’s journey from all manner of striking vantage points, making great use of depth of frame and rarely allowing his camera to move. Most of the time we are treated to extended takes from singular vantage points. The unhurried feel of this and the virtual lack of accompanying score affords the film its studious quietude, as well as its sense of escalating rapture.
This is cinema as art and an exquisite example of the same. Dinesen’s quest feels reminiscent of the existential trek undertaken by the protagonists of Tarkovsky’s Stalker, but Dinesen is compelled to embark on his search for Ingeborg alone, reflecting all of our respectively futile journeys toward the infinite. Taming the earth is impossible; the land grows more inhospitable at every footfall, and Dinesen seemingly insists on remaining in his unsuitable uniform. Containing the will of his daughter seems equally unachievable. This is, in some respects, a journey toward accepting such humility, but it’s a lesson hard learned, and may prove too much for many viewers.
And yet, meet Jauja on its own terms and there’s a great deal to respect and even love in this mysterious picture. While it connects spiritually to work from the likes of the aforementioned Tarkovsky or Reygadas, the essence of the film feels confidently monolithic, like something Kubrick would’ve loved to have attempted. The sense of large, unattainable mystery, in fact, recalls the sensation conjured on arriving at the bed chamber at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, albeit stretched out over the course of this film’s entire 105 minute running time. It’s like a lost artefact that has appeared outside of time and reason, outside of context, willing us to imprint it with our own definitions.
On a purely aesthetic level, it’s obviously a masterwork. The opening shot is perhaps my favourite of the year, so simple yet perfectly are Dinesen and Ingeborg framed together. While Alonso’s judicious choice to show us almost exclusively daytime scenes pays dividends an hour and fifteen minutes in when we are suddenly presented with the vastness of the night sky. It’s effect is totally disarming. This scene also features the film’s first music cue. It’s a small but precious moment, majestically clouded over all too soon.
“What is it that makes a life function and move forward?” is one of many pertinent questions asked in Jauja. There is a sensation here that some things only exist as long as they are pursued or even remembered. That nothing is forever, not even family, and the world or perhaps time will eventually make fools of us all. That might sound a mite bleak, but Jauja suggests accepting such ideas might be a cathartic necessity, while also forwarding the counter argument that perhaps nothing ends; it merely changes endlessly.
Dinesen seems at times to be aware that he’s within a story. By the time we reach his final scenes (which convey a curious sensation of anticipation) it’s almost as if he’s looking for the film’s credits and not his beloved Ingeborg. Like Alonso himself, he is attempting to break free of the conventional bounds of narrative and enter a world outside. The film’s confounding and provocative final ten minutes will leave those that get there further questions about the nature of what they’ve just witnessed and what they expect of cinema.
With the bold caveat that this is absolutely (and unfortunately) an acquired taste, Jauja is a beguiling reminder that so much of cinema is merely storytelling when the medium is evidently capable of so much more.