A strikingly shot odyssey story that makes extensive use of the dramatic, varied landscapes of rural South America and moves at a pace that would see it quickly outflanked by the average glacier, “Jauja” may involve the talents of the biggest star he’s ever worked with in Viggo Mortensen, but it’s resolutely a Lisandro Alonso film, for better, or if you like watching things happen, largely for worse. We can’t say we’re massive fans of the director’s previous features (2008’s “Liverpool” and 2004’s “Los Muertos” feel like the closest siblings to "Jauja," and both frustrated the hell out of us), but the director has gained a fairly worshipful critical following elsewhere, especially among the “narrative”-is-a-dirty-word brigade. Still, we were hopeful that his tendency for tedium might be mitigated this time out, as the film not only stars an actor we admire, but has a relatively rich logline, for an Alonso project. But while “Jauja” does feature a little more dialogue than usual and becomes markedly more engaging in its second half when it makes a few small concessions to the idea of story, we were largely disappointed. Perversely episodic, strangely empty, and unfolding in a series of beautifully composed but static wide shots (giving us the unusual experience of literally yearning for a close-up), the film is a test of patience which may work better if you think of it as staring at a series of lovely paintings for two hours. Watching them dry.
The story mostly unfolds in 19th century ruggedly rural South America where the Danish Captain Dinesen (Mortensen) and a small band of men are camped out, until Dinesen’s 15-year-old daughter Ingeborg (Viilbjork Mallin Agge) runs off with a handsome Spanish soldier and Dinesen sets off to find her. And that’s really all that happens for the first half, with only a few allusions to a quasi-mythical native figure called Zuluaga and some fragmented conversations between the soldiers to suggest a wider context, or to hint, if we wanted to stretch a point, at some sort of colonialist commentary. Otherwise, the proceedings unfold in a quiet, snail-paced manner with Alonso and DP Timo Salminen seldom moving the camera (and so when they do it feels momentous, and oddly jerky) but letting the grandeur of the landscape and natural soundscape speak for the characters, who sometimes wander out of frame leaving us looking at pampas grass and sky for a long while after they’re gone. Very pretty pampas grass, mind you.
Eventually, Dinesen comes across the young man his daughter ran off with, bloody and dying after an Indian attack during which presumably Ingeborg was abducted. Dinesen finishes off the man with his sword, and after this uncharacteristic burst of action, the film moves into the relentless white-knuckle thrill ride (comparatively speaking) of the second half. Taking on a more hallucinatory vibe, Dinesen begins to follow a literal shaggy dog, who leads him to a cave where he meets an old woman whose possible identity we won’t spoil, because if you make it this far you deserve the reward of an unspoiled reveal.
Fans of Alonso often invoke Tarkovsky comparisons, and it’s true that like Tarkovsky he uses a lot of long, extremely carefully composed takes, and that sometimes individual shots almost feel like theatrical plays. But the Russian master’s shots are loaded with meaning, and so brimful with symbolism and import for the relationships within the film that they feel like they need to be that long just for us to be able to unpack. The scenes in "Jauja" felt indulgently empty to us by comparison, and despite Mortensen’s game efforts to characterize Dinesen (he starts out as a slightly foolish, ungainly figure, but becomes a leaner, stronger presence as his journey wears on) there are precious few access points for any sort of relatable humanity or philosophy. And yet an extended epilogue set in present-day Europe but featuring motifs that recur from the 19th century segment is genuinely intriguing, and made a bid for our attention that came sadly too late to really offset the overarching sense of a long time spent looking at rocks.
Admittedly, somewhere in the middle a kind of Stockholm syndrome did take over (we honestly felt grateful to Alonso for allowing us that bit of action with the sword, like a starving hostage might when his abductor feeds him a morsel of bread) and we found ourselves a little more drawn in than during that first tough hour. The boxy aspect ratio and vignetted edging is another nice visual flourish in a film lousy with beauty. But beauty alone just doesn’t do it for us, and the raptures we’ve heard other critics go into over the film’s resonance and philosophical weightiness are beyond us: we felt set adrift, marooned in a vast endless void of narrative nothingness. But not to worry, ours is not a reaction that Alonso for one cares about—nor anyone’s, apparently: before the screening, the team was up on stage and Mortensen expressed his hope that that the audience would enjoy the film, to which Alonso replied, “Actually, that doesn’t matter,” a point of view that "Jauja" makes pretty clear. [C+]