Review: Jauja (Alonso, 2014) – SFIFF 2015

Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society

Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society

I walked out of this film thinking, Maybe I should stop watching these really indie indie movies. The kind made for about a hundred people to appreciate. But the further I got from the film and the longer the time it had to settle into me, the more my impression of it began to shift.

Why? From a lay moviegoer’s perspective, the film is largely nonsensical, albeit visually arresting. One of the early scenes focuses on a military official masturbating in a Patagonia hot spring. Into this testosterone-laden environment, the Danish engineer Gunnar Dinesen (Viggo Mortensen) has brought his stunning young daughter Ingeborg (Viilbjørk Malling Agger), whom he guards with all the protectiveness of any 19th-century patriarch. The Patagonia landscape makes for a romantic, if forbidding, landscape as Inge absconds with one of the military’s enslaved natives, the lovers slipping into the ungoverned wilderness with Gunnar soon in hot pursuit.

After a few serious setbacks, however, Gunnar soon finds himself stumbling around in the deserted plains, horse stolen and rations dwindling. And then an eerie irrealism, which has been building since the opening scenes, completely overwhelms the film. First, our Danish hero stumbles into a cave, the residence of an old woman who might be an aged version of his daughter, and the two exchange poetic, mysterious utterances. Then we are transported to modern day where Inge is a teen living in a Danish castle. She walks around the contemporary facilities, fondles her dogs, and exchanges more poetic, mysterious utterances with her dog handler. (These utterances are courtesy of Argentinian poet Fabián Casas, who collaborated with Alonso on the screenplay. His participation was what initially drew me to this film.)

Much has been made of the stylistic elements of Argentinian director Lisandro Alonso‘s fourth picture. Cinephiles heap praise, provide abstruse analyses. I’ve read some of it, searching for the reason why Jauja has stayed with me all these months while other films with more conventional plots and, frankly, more emotional resonance have already fizzled away. The answer still eludes me. Perhaps it’s the puzzle of it? A puzzle that can never be fully grasped, much less solved, and so can never be discarded. It remains unfinished business in our brains.

But other movies (like H., for example) are also bizarre and unknowable without having Jauja‘s staying power. Is it a certain finesse then? A finesse of vision, execution, style? Perhaps part of its mystery is the mystery of its power to bewitch.

I can’t say I’ll watch another Alonso film any time soon, but maybe it’s enough that I’m still digesting this one.