Argentine auteur Lisandro Alonso’s masterful Jauja is a cinematic chimera, shifting shape across its two-hour length without ever interrupting its wholly unique style. Early on, the film teeters on the brink between a Western and a sort of fantastical fable, but it soon becomes something like a riddle, answers lurking ever out of view. And in its awesomely strange and potent denouement, it comes untethered from reality, veering headlong into the overlapping realms of the philosophical, the spiritual, and the aesthetically abstract.
Director: Lisandro Alonso
Writers: Lisandro Alonso, Fabian Casas
Producers: Ilse Hughan, Andy Kleinman, Viggo Mortensen, Sylvie Pialat, Jaime Romandia, Helle Ulsteen
Editors: Gonzalo del Val, Natalia López
Cinematographer: Timo Salminen
Music: Viggo Morensen
Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Ghita Nørby, Vilbjørk Malling Agger, Esteban Bigliardi
Country: Argentina / Denmark / France / Mexico / USA / Germany / Brazil / Netherlands
Premiere: May 18, 2014 - Cannes
US Theatrical Release: March 20, 2015
US Distributor: The Cinema Guild
The film follows the journey of Captain Dinesen (played with terrific subtlety and acuity by Viggo Mortensen), a Danish engineer on an expedition with a band of soldiers in the 19th-century Patagonian desert to exterminate the territory’s indigenous population. Traveling with them is Dinesen’s 15-year-old daughter Ingeborg, a shy, yearning figure whose emotions seem just outside of the film’s perceptual reach, even as they set in motion the plot’s key events.
One night, after the group has set up camp and gone to sleep, Ingeborg runs away with a handsome young soldier named Corto. Dinesen soon wakes and discovers that she’s gone missing, quickly gathers himself—and his gun and sword—and rides off into the desert dawn in panicked pursuit, leaving his men and their expedition behind.
It’s here that the film’s tenuously realist tone begins to disintegrate altogether, but the signs have been cropping up all along. The opening title card, which tells of the legendary yet unreachable paradise Jauja, seems like something out of a fairy tale. From the first shot of Dinesen and Ingeborg, the film seems to foreground its artificiality—ravishingly shot in 35mm by Finnish cinematographer Timo Salminen and cropped to the now-antiquated 4:3 aspect ratio, Jauja is framed with rounded corners that suggest the feeling of a storybook, a sense that’s heightened by the film’s enchanting use of the Argentine landscape’s radiant colors. Meanwhile, the screenplay—co-written by Alonso and Fabian Casas—lets loose a handful of early hints that everything is not as it seems, including Ingeborg’s comparison of her and Corto’s romantic reverie to a state of déjà vu, as well as an earlier allusion to a vanished soldier, Zuluaga, who has deserted his unit and potentially gone insane.
As Dinesen’s hunt for Ingeborg gets underway, these clues bear fruit. First, he witnesses, from a distance, what appears to be Zuluaga tormenting and murdering an unnamed soldier. Soon thereafter, he comes across Corto’s bloodied body, and in the process of searching the area for his daughter, Denisen loses sight of his horse, which a barely-glimpsed figure promptly steals. Then, as he begins to wander the desert without food or water, things become increasingly unhinged.
During this sequence, the film’s overtly surrealist aspects seem to be just creeping in around the edges, but the realization quickly descends that somehow, these elements have fully and suddenly subsumed the narrative at some not-quite-apparent point, perhaps just moments earlier. This marvelous feat of stylistic and storytelling sleight-of-hand gives way to a queasy sequence in which Dinesen seems to drift into some alternate reality, and perhaps back out of it, only for the film to suddenly break into a perplexing epilogue that creates even more questions.
Jauja is a tricky film to pin down, never quite cohering to any one narrative idea, and deftly eliding closure throughout, yet it’s beautiful and emotional enough to avoid the frustrations that this style of experimentation can create at its most rote. It lets disquieting mysteries linger unresolved, and confidently allows these contradictions and quandaries to guide its aesthetic. In doing so, Jauja becomes the kind of film that left me feeling truly transported. To where? I’m not sure I’ll ever be quite sure.