Director: Lisandro Alonso
Major Players: Viggo Mortensen, Viilbjork Malling Agger
Out Of Five: 4
Question. Do you need to understand a film to be able to enjoy it? You’d think the answer was yes, that it was something of a pre-requisite. But after seeing Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja, I’m really not so sure. Sure, it helps. But whether it’s essential or not is quite another matter.
On the face of it, it’s a straightforward enough story. Captain Dinesen (Viggo Mortensen) and his teenage daughter Ingeborg (Viilbjork Malling Agger) are in Argentina while he works on an engineering project. They’re protected by a group of soldiers, one of whom catches the eye of the shy young girl and the feeling’s mutual. They run off together into the desert, the father goes in pursuit and it doesn’t take him long to find the soldier, but his daughter is more elusive and his search becomes more of an epic quest.
The film’s visual style is arresting, framed throughout by a near square: with its rounded corners, each shot looks like a print from an old fashioned photo album. In fact, any single shot from the film would make a photograph in its own right. But framing it in this way makes what you’re seeing on the screen almost jump out at you, and it concentrates all your thoughts and your vision wonderfully well.
The photography itself is leisurely, languid almost, although a less enthusiastic reviewer might call it downright slow. And fast it certainly isn’t. Sometimes we view a scene from a long distance, from the position of the watcher, which is often Mortensen himself. He has a telescope but rarely uses it and we never get a peek through it. So we have the same difficulties as he does when it comes to seeing what’s going on. Other times, the camera watches somebody moving away into the distance, or coming towards it, again from a long way away. Either way, the shot lasts until the person/animal is right out of sight. And all of that takes time.
There are times when the action takes place entirely out of shot. The characters move off screen to do whatever they have to do, but we never see it – and hardly hear it as well. We just have to imagine. This could be a frustrating technique, but instead it reinforces your interest, adding an air of intrigue. Put all that together and not only do you have a strangely hypnotic film, but one which feels mystical, if not mythical. It holds your attention in the palm of its hand, even if you’re wishing it would sometimes get a move on.
The film’s journey takes us through a number of stunning landscapes, all strikingly different, and as the story turns darker, so do the surroundings. They still maintain their beauty, even if it does become harsher to the point of savagery. The story starts on the coast, with Dinesen, his daughter and the soldiers relaxing in the sun on the rocks. Then we move inland into the interminable pampas, with its whispering long grass. Even further inland, when he’s searching for his daughter, the landscape turns firstly rocky and then volcanic – black, arid and unforgiving.
For much of the time, this is a one man movie, with Mortensen staggering through the rocks, hot, tired and dehydrated. His hardships put me in mind of those suffered by Robert Redford in All Is Lost, but on land. And at least he had some company for some of the film!
But as he pursues his daughter’s trail, things become more mystic. A dog comes out of nowhere, leading him to a woman in a cave, who not only speaks Danish but could easily be a much older version of his daughter. Their meeting has that dream like quality again, yet her words haunt him as his continues his search. “What is it that makes a life finish and move forward?” It’s as if he’s looking for the answer, not just about his daughter’s life but his own as well.
Does he get that answer? Do we? That rather depends on how you interpret the film and it can be taken a number of different ways. But however you look at it, Jauja has a spellbinding, almost hypnotic quality that never lets up for a second. And, regardless of whether you understand it or not, you can’t help but admire it.
Jauja is released today in selected cinemas.