Deep in Argentine auteur Lisandro Alonso’s new film Jauja, our hero Gunnar Dinesen’s path crosses with that of a grizzled woman (Ghita Nørby) living in a secluded Patagonian cave. The two don’t “speak,” per se, so much as she lobs non sequiturs while he passively receives them. “All families disappear eventually, even if it takes a long time,” she says, looking off into the distance. “One man is not all men,” she warns. “What is it that makes a life function and move forward?” What, indeed!
As Gunnar, Viggo Mortensen reacts to these inscrutable existential fortune cookies with bafflement, worry, and a slight hint of fear. His hopeless confusion paired with the sneaking suspicion that there are greater forces rumbling just beneath his understanding accurately replicates the experience of watching Jauja. Alonso’s latest clearly has plenty on its mind, but even the most studious viewer can only decipher a small fraction of it. This head-scratcher practically taunts the audience with meaning, allowing the faintest breeze of clarity before muddling it with another wave of portentous, befuddling fog.
Though in comparison to Alonso’s notoriously impenetrable previous works, Jauja plays by the book; it has characters and a plot and everything! An engineer, Gunnar’s come to survey a tract of land newly purchased by his Danish employers. He arrives with his teenage daughter Ingeborg (Viilbjørk Malling Agger) in tow, dragging her along on his tight-lipped sojourn through the barely-tamed wilds. Local natives derisively referred to as “coconut-heads” have carved out little pockets of the forbidding flatlands for their own habitat, but as Gunnar and his daughter venture deeper into Patagonia, the uncultivated natural landscape takes on a malevolence all its own.
First, it swallows up Ingeborg, who vanishes without a trace and compels Gunnar to embark on the search that gives the film its shape. Then, once Alonso’s made it good and clear that Gunnar’s searching for an undefined something far more conceptual than his daughter, the earth threatens to take his mind as well. At the point where Alonso fully surrenders his relinquished grasp on coherence, his crisp 35mm photography of South American beauty gains in potency. Alonso’s eye-grabbing choice to frame the film in a 4:3 aspect ratio with rounded corners, imitating the look of a Carousel slide show, feels more aptly unnatural once his film departs from this plane. He creates a space where the laws of nature have been loosened, where the topography terraforms to match the protagonist’s mental state. Like Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, Jauja takes place in a zone of expressionist abstraction.
Also like Stalker, Jauja doesn’t do analytical moviegoers any favors. What makes Jauja engrossing instead of frustrating is Alonso’s confident artistic vision, the assurance that he’s not blowing pretentious smoke. This writer speculates that multiple viewings would afford audiences a richer opportunity to unpack Alonso’s metaphysical baggage, not to discover that he has nothing going on under the surface. The jurors at Cannes were evidently hip enough for this defiantly unknowable work of art when they awarded Jauja the coveted FIPRESCI Prize in last year’s Un Certain Regard section. But such is the nature of film festivals — the constricted timeframe necessitates that audiences form opinions on movies fast, now. In the more low-key realm of the open film marketplace, we have the time and luxury to admit that this nut takes quite a bit of work to crack. Alonso and cinematographer Timo Salminen’s gorgeous photography and Mortensen’s sturdy performance are more than enough to get first-timers through that initial viewing. But Jauja will only offer up its many treasures — lofty critiques of colonialism, dark estimates of man’s capacity for despair — to those driven (or crazy) enough to make the journey.