Director: Lisandro Alonso
Cast: Viggo Mortensen
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“I have a feeling this has happened before…”
Jauja is a flower that seems to sprout from half-glimpsed memories of cinema. It’s a Western, but it’s in Argentina. It stars Viggo Mortensen as a Danish engineer, but he speaks in Spanish. It’s a widescreen world, but filtered through a 4:3 frame.
The actor plays a father recruited by the army to help subdue the indigenous population in 19th century Patagonia. It’s a task he undertakes with less relish than some: “Why do you call them coconut heads?” he asks an eager lieutenant. “It doesn’t matter,” comes the reply. “What matters is that we kill them.”
As if to emphasise how uninvolved he is in the conflict, he has also brought his daughter with him: Ingeborg. When she runs off with a young officer, though, he rides off to find her. A dad hunting for a taken child? It’s another echo of something vaguely familiar, but this is as far from a Liam Neeson revenge flick as you can imagine: where you might expect violence or gruff suspense, Jauja offers isolated wanderings, a quest seemingly without end.
Director Lisandro Alonso embraces that languorous pace, turning the genre’s traditional, rocky vistas into arid, almost alien landscapes. Surreal flourishes pepper the horizon: the dreaded aboriginals are nowhere to be seen. Instead, we get a man pleasuring himself in a puddle. Even the relationship between our young lovers is kept from conventional romance by their lack of shared language. “Is that man your father?” he asks. She replies with a question of her own. Neither are answered.
Viggo is superb as the wandering loner, his hat and moustache contrasting against the backdrop like a cardboard cut-out; less a cowboy and more a daydream of John Wayne. As he roams, he slowly blends into the bizarre tapestry: one long shot sees him climb an endless mountain, a black dot disappearing between the giant boulders. Alonso’s static takes – accompanied by a score co-written by Mortensen – become increasingly absorbing, presenting each picture with rounded edges so it feels like flicking through old photographs from a dusty box in an attic. Viilbjørk Malling Agger’s bright costume accentuates that storybook quality of the past. Even her sing-song name, Ingeborg, could belong to a character from an ancient fairy tale.
By the time Alonso unveils his final act – a frustrating, fascinating non-conclusion – you’re not entirely sure you’re watching something real after all. “He doesn’t understand why you go away for so long,” our naive girl is told by one kind soul. The fact that he’s referring to a dog suddenly doesn’t seem so strange. The title, Jauja, refers to a mythical place of happiness, which people once went in search of without ever reaching their destination. If that is also true of this calm, hazy drama, there is still much to mull over on the way there.