How odd: I feel like I shouldn’t like Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja half as much as I do. A mystery without an answer (or is it an answer without a mystery?), Jauja feels at times like an almost-Western, an almost-historical drama, and an almost-fantasy film set against empty deserts. A lone Danish Captain played by Viggo Mortensen traverses the unexpectedly green wastes of 1880s Argentina in search of his daughter, all the while on the hunt for the unseen Zuluaga, a cross-dressing deserter at the head of a group of bandits.
Barely ten minutes in and we’re already inundated with questions: how did Mortensen get to Argentina?; where are his troops?; why would he bring his teenage daughter to Argentina where there obviously aren’t any towns, settlements, or villages other than military outposts?; why are toy soldiers suddenly emerging from rural pools thousands of miles from any child who would play with them? Alonso stubbornly refuses to address any of these questions, instead concerning the bulk of the film to the minutiae of Mortensen’s quest. Silently riding the wastes, he stops to drink, stops to think, and perhaps stops from time to time merely for the sake of stopping.
Again, I feel like I shouldn’t like Jauja as much as I do because the film unabashedly indulges in many of the practices which I find make “art-house” films so insufferable: 10-15 minute stretches of almost literally nothing happening; performances which seem less emotionally detached than physically absent; perfunctory moments of graphic sexuality (an early scene shows a fat soldier masturbating in a lake for…some reason); and a teeth-grinding twist ending. And yet, these elements work for once. Perhaps because Jauja deals so obviously in myth and symbolism instead of reality and naturalism, these stylistic flourishes seem more oneiric than soporific. Alonso isn’t so much interested in historical recreation than in historical suggestion.
The film compliments its languorous pacing with painterly frame compositions, an effect achieved through more than just the film’s squircle aspect ratio. A traditional shot in Jauja involves static figures positioned in multiple depths of field, giving even the most tiresome scenes at least some small measure of energy. Movement rarely crosses these depths of field: characters will usually enter one side of the screen and exit the one opposite in a straight line. Jauja feels less like a film than a hazy dream of postcards from nowhere. It’s certainly not for everyone. But apparently it was good enough for me. At least…I think it was…