Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Movie Review: Jauja

Directed by: Lisandro Alonso.
Written by:  Lisandro Alonso and Fabian Casas.
Starring: Viggo Mortensen (Gunnar Dinesen), Ghita Nørby (Woman in the cave), Viilbjørk Malling Agger (Ingeborg), Esteban Bigliardi (Angel Milkibar), Adrián Fondari (Pittaluga).

Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja is a definite example of slow cinema – a film that is mostly made up of long, static shots, with sparse dialogue and little music – the type of film that some will complain that “nothing happens” in it, and others will be enraptured from beginning to end. The plot of the movie is simple and straightforward – it’s a journey into nothingness and madness, and will remind people of books like Joseph Conrad’s Hearts of Darkness and films like John Ford’s The Searchers. The plot is setup up very simply – it’s the late 19th Century, somewhere in Argentina, and Gunnar Dinesen (Viggo Mortensen) is a Danish engineer, who is with a small group of Argentine soldiers, and his 15 year old daughter, Ingeborg. There is a particularly disgusting soldier – who makes racist comments about the tribes, that Dinesen doesn’t challenge in so many words, but still lets his disgust known – but that also may be since this man has also made a polite, but still lecherous, advance towards his daughter. Ingeborg runs off with a young, good looking soldier instead – and Dinesen follows her out into the desert to search for her – waving off all offers of help to do it solo.

Most of the movie is Dinesen alone, searching for his daughter, and suffering one setback, one humiliation after another. He has been warned that one of the soldiers has gone insane, and is somewhere out in the desert killing people. Dinesen keeps searching for his daughter – but as the film progresses, and he comes across one horror after another, and hears unmistakable screams, you cannot help but sense that things are not going to turn out the way he wants them to. And then, the film takes a wild left turn at the end – something I’m still processing days later.

There probably isn’t another actor of Mortensen’s stature who would do a movie like this, for a filmmaker like Alonso – who until now has been known for very small, more realistic movie – mainly made with non-professional actors. But Mortensen’s presence in the film works – it immediately sets him apart from those around him, which works for the character. Not only that, but Mortensen then fully commits to the part – which is hardly flattering. He is representing imperialism here – and it’s his folly that he does not understand what the hell he’s doing, or where’s he’s going. Dressed in his expensive suit, he looks ridiculous out in the middle of the desert. Mortensen also has the type of screen presence that can hold your attention for long shots with little going on. In short, while Mortensen working with Alonso at first seems like an odd choice, it actually works perfectly for the film.

Alonso uses a square aspect ratio, with rounded off corners – which I think functions in much the same way a square aspect ratio did for Kelly Recihardt’s western Meek’s Cutoff a years back. Instead of taking in the vast expanse around Mortensen – seeing the endless the possibilities, like a film like Lawrence of Arabia does, the square aspect ratio traps Mortensen in the frame – giving him nowhere to go. The static shots are often beautiful – in particular there is a shot of the night sky late in the film that is breathtaking, even on a television.

I’m honestly not sure if the final twist (or twists, really) of the movie actually work for the movie, but I do know it’s memorable, and unexpected. Having clearly invoked Hearts of Darkness and The Searchers early in the narrative, you think you know where Alonso is headed with Jauja – only to be stunned when he gets there.

Jauja is a film that will infuriate some viewers I know – many won’t even make to the twist in the end, and those that do may simply find themselves scratching their head – much like, I admit, I was (and still am). The film feels longer than it actually is – just under 2 hours – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I did find myself squirming at times during the movie. There is a fine line between meditative and dull – and Jauja walks that line, mostly on the right side of it. But damn it, Jauja is something – something different, something unexpected, and something interesting. Something that needs to be seen – and discussed.

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