Lisandro Alonso is often cited as being part of Argentina’s new wave of cinema. His work is critically appreciated, and two of his features have been selected in the Cannes Un Certain Regard category: La Libertad in 2001, and in 2014, Jauja. With the latter film, he is perhaps contributing to the creation of a new genre, along with director Kristian Levring: the Scandinavian Western. Both Levring’s The Salvation and Jauja portray immigrants from the region struggling to combine family life with the harsh conditions of the American wild. Both films are multi-lingual, uniquely reflecting the diversity of nationalities, and the implied culture clashes existing at the time among settlers, but often ignored by Hollywood productions. However, unlike The Salvation, Jauja fails to meet its promise.
Set in the 1880s, Jauja tells the story of two Danish immigrants, Captain Dinesen (Viggo Mortensen) and his daughter Ingeborg (Viilbojork Malling Agger), itinerants in the wilderness of Patagonia. When Ingeborg runs away with a soldier, her father sets out in their pursuit across the region’s empty landscapes. Mortensen shines in his role, most of which is silent. He conveys frustration, loneliness and despair effortlessly with grimaces, contortions, and phrases half-spoken to the desert. Malling Agger lends a warranted oddity and naiveté to the character of Ingeborg.
The quality of acting, however, does nothing to save the film, which is long, meandering and dull. The dullness might in itself have a point – chasing a kidnapped relative through uninhabited wilderness is lonely and grating work, and perhaps this is what Alonso was attempting to convey. This intention is however unclear, and the main character’s quest doesn’t convey much emotion, except boredom, which makes it easy to drift off. The ending is certainly surprising, but cliché, and so does not manage to save the rest of the feature.
The film’s frame is a short rectangle, with rounded edges, shaped just like an old photo print. The camera moves very little, if at all in most scenes, and so it looks as if the film is made up of a series of vignettes. At the beginning of the story, Alonso does some clever and unusual photography: the whole of the image looks crisp and in focus. Action takes place both at the forefront and background of the frame, and so viewers are invited to let their eyes wander over the screen to follow the story. However, the novelty wears off, and the combination of all of these devices dons the movie with a gimmicky feel.
Jauja is a valiant effort, showcasing Mortensen’s visceral acting work. However, its innovative effects feel more like haphazard experimentation than considerate choices, and its plot is long and to no comprehensible purpose, leaving audiences bored. Alsonso does however captures with dexterity the texture of Patagonia’s varied landscape. The one reaction this film is certain to provoke is an urge to visit the region.