Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja opens with a stunningly picturesque two-shot of Viggo Mortensen and Viilbjørk Malling Agger. The two sit side-by-side, Agger facing the camera and Mortensen with his back to the lens, discussing her desire to own a dog. The entire conversation plays out in that one shot, but it works. The colors are so vibrant, the topic of conversation is relatable and their affection for one another is palpable as well. Unfortunately, that’s the only time the performances and the beautiful backdrop can carry the minimal amount of coverage and sluggish pace.
This is yet another New York Film Festival entry with a nearly indiscernible plot. In fact, I had a tough time recalling Mortensen’s character’s name at all. (Agger’s Ingeborg is another story because Mortensen must say her name at least 50 times over the course of the film’s 108-minute running time.) But ultimately I did and it’s Gunnar Dinesen. As presented in the film, his business in South America can be tough to understand, but having read a good deal about Alonso’s latest prior to seeing it, I walked in well aware that it takes place in 1882 during the Conquest of the Desert, a time when Argentine troops were trying to wipe out the indigenous population in the area. Dinesen is there as a surveyor and he decides to bring his teenage daughter along with him.
So they’re on this trip, Ingeborg falls for a guy and in the middle of the night, the two ride off together. When Dinesen finds out, he hops on his horse and sets off after her and that’s essentially when Jauja comes to a screeching halt. For the most part, the rest of the film consists of Dinesen walking or riding his horse in and out of frame oh-so slowly. Most of these shots are many, many minutes long and for a good portion of them, the frame is completely empty. Each and every visual is gorgeous enough to freeze-frame, print out and hang up on a wall somewhere, but this is a movie, not an art gallery or a museum. The cinematography may be beautiful, but it’s so boring that even when something riveting is happening on screen, like an injured man bleeding out for example, it still feels like watching paint dry.
Perhaps Alonso could have gotten away with his visual choices had his narrative had a more engaging quality to it. Minus that one conversation at the beginning of the film, there’s nothing to convince the viewer that Dinesen and Ingeborg’s father-daughter relationship special. In fact, based on that little bit of information from that first shot, I assumed Ingeborg loved her father dearly. However, soon thereafter, she’s ditching him in the middle of the night to ride off with a guy she presumably just met.
From that point on, we know Dinesen is trying to find her, but beyond that, the storytelling is far too fragmented to get swept up in or to understand the challenges of his mission. There’s something about a Zuluaga and his dog, an Indian attack, a creepy old lady that lives in a cave plus a short segment that takes place in present-day. There’s a mystical quality to it all that does have appeal and Mortensen’s work is up there as some of the best of the festival, but the stagnant visuals and lack of music suck so much life out of the film that nothing can make up for it.
Have you seen the poster for Jauja? That’s basically how I felt (and possibly looked) after coming out of this one. It’s a head-scratcher and a slog, and will likely be an exhausting challenge for anyone without a substantial amount of patience and strong coffee with them.
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