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New Release Review - Jauja

A Danish engineer searches for his runaway daughter in 19th century Argentina.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Lisandro Alonso

Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Ghita Norby, Viilbjork Malling Agger



Thanks to growing up in Argentina with a Danish father, Viggo Mortenson is fluent in both Danish and Spanish. As with Kristin Scott Thomas, who is now more associated with French than English language cinema, Mortenson has in recent years used his lingual range to work extensively in Spanish language film, mainly in the country of his upbringing. Jauja (pronounced 'How-Ha'; think of Al Pacino's guttural roar in Scent of a Woman) is yet another Argentine production, but one that calls for him to act in both Spanish and Danish, and I believe this is the first time Mortenson has been called upon to perform in his father's tongue.
Playing a Danish engineer employed by the Argentine army in the late 19th century, one presumes the part was written specifically with Mortenson in mind, as it's difficult to imagine too many name actors possessing the required language skills. Mortenson's Gunnar is in South America with his 15-year-old daughter Ingeborg (Agger) in tow, and the young girl has many suitors among the military personnel tasked with protecting Gunnar and his crew from the indigenous tribesman (crudely referred to as "coconut heads" by the Argentines) who are being summarily displaced. One night Ingeborg steals away from the camp with a young soldier, and when her father discovers her disappearance, he sets off on a Searchers-like journey across the deadly Patagonian landscape to retrieve her.
The above summary makes Lisandro Alonso's movie sound a lot more cut and dried than the surreal and absurdist drama that ultimately plays out. Jauja is arthouse cinema with a capital A, drawing on many of the touchstones of the genre. There's a smidgeon of The Seventh Seal, a slice of Stalker, a leaf from Last Year at Marienbad. At times it also resembles a particularly heady episode of Star Trek; there's an almost sci-fi feel to the landscape Alonso dumps his protagonist in - El Topo by way of Zardoz - and there's some dabbling with doppelgangers and time travel motifs. The final act is as obtuse as cinema can be, and even Alonso himself has admitted in Q+A's that he's not entirely sure what it all means.
It's almost becoming a cliche in non-mainstream movies to employ an unconventional aspect ratio - just a few weeks ago we saw the revolutionary 1:1 ratio of Xavier Dolan's Mommy - and here Alonso opts for a 4:3 frame with rounded, polaroid style edges. The conventional approach to shooting landscapes favours a wider screen, but Alonso, like John Ford and Anthony Mann before him, knows that a narrower frame is really the best option when it comes to conveying depth. Unlike a widescreen frame, which draws our eyes across the screen, the 4:3 frame focusses our gaze, forcing us to look into the frame rather than simply upon it. Alonso and cinematographer Timo Salminen (best known for his work with Finnish auteur Aki Kaurismaki) create a series of striking compositions, doing for Patagonia what Ford did for Monument Valley. The landscape stretches out seemingly forever; a third dimension without the need for glasses.
To call the pace of Jauja glacial is to underestimate the speed of glaciers; this is a movie that at time almost seems to purposely mock the viewer's attention span. If you're willing to endure such patience-testing, Alonso's film is a baffling but ultimately satisfying oddity.




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