Friday 24 April 2015

Jauja: An atmospheric western full of beautiful visuals and baffling plot twists


Director: Lisandro Alonso
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Ghita Nørby, Viilbjørk Malling
Running time: 109 mins

There are moments in Jauja – pronounced How-ha – where you could hear a very tiny pin drop. Director Lisandro Alonso’s woozy, surreal western has long sequences that are so silent and still, I wondered at times if I’d hit the mute button by mistake. Rather than being off-putting, however, the disarming quiet adds to its peculiarly haunting atmosphere, something that is at first alienating (the lack of a musical score is especially noticeable) but eventually sucks you in.

This Argentine story of Danish engineer Gunnar Dinesen (Mortensen) desperately searching for missing daughter Ingeborg (Malling) in the wilds of 19th Century Patagonia isn’t an easy watch. The sub-titles would be enough to put off some on their own but add to that the languid pace, a boxlike 1.33 aspect ratio (see trailer below) and bonkers final 15 minutes, and you’ve seemingly got the very epitome of a film it would seem easy to dismiss as pretentious and impenetrable.

But please trust me when I say there are a great many things to treasure here.

For a start, there’s the look of the film. Cinematographer Timo Salminen ensures each frame is bathed in colour and it really is a visual treat – from the sharp scarlet of an army lieutenant’s uniform to the lustrous green of the grass and sea-slicked lichen, every detail is a genuine feast for the eyes. Rocks, brush, sky, water, clothes, animals – you simply don’t know what to look at first.

The vibrant visuals reach their apex in a night scene. Stars twinkle like diamonds in a vast bruise-blue sky and Mortensen looks longingly at a toy soldier (a gift from Ingeborg). It is just achingly beautiful, especially when we get a rare burst of music to accompany the moment’s already powerful sense of melancholy.

Jauja’s squarish aspect ratio – with the edges of the frame rounded off like an old photograph – works nicely too. It lends a film set in the boundless open spaces of the Patagonian desert an intimate, almost claustrophobic quality that it certainly wouldn’t have otherwise. It also helps emphasise Dinesen’s terrible isolation as he stumbles alone, hungry and exhausted, through the wilderness (Mortensen does hollow-eyed and desperate with some aplomb).

Eschewing the widescreen format also feeds into one of the film’s themes – that so much in life is hidden and unknowable. Stuff is happening outside of that boxed-in 1:33 ratio but we aren’t privy to its nature. We are surrounded by mysteries that, should we get too close, slip quickly and quietly away from us. For Dinesen the riddle is stark and simple: what has happened to his daughter? But it’s the nature of his very existence that ends up being Jauja’s biggest enigma as the film slides into a strange and perplexing final act. 

I called Alonso’s film – his fifth, and the follow-up to 2008’s Liverpool – a western but it’s like no western you’ve ever seen. The “man searching for lost girl” plot is straight out of The Searchers but that’s where that particular similarity begins and ends. In John Ford’s 1956 movie, John Wayne had to rescue his niece from a tribe of Native Americans. Here, Dinesen’s daughter has taken off of her own accord with a soldier. Aboriginals (many thousands of whom were massacred in late 19th Century Patagonia) stalk the desert to steal and kill but Dinesen has little interaction with them. He’s no action hero, no great gunslinger. Just a man whose biggest enemies are his own limitations and the rugged, alien terrain he is trying and failing to negotiate.

As I’ve mentioned, proceedings take a turn for the bizarre in the final scenes. Dinesen follows a mangy dog to the home of an old woman who, it turns out, might well be an aged version of his lost daughter. What follows this sequence is stranger still and, to be honest, not a little jarring. Is he a character in a dream? Is he in some kind of Lost-like Purgatory? Has he stumbled across a place so remote and strange that time ceases to follow the rules of physics there? It’s a bold, brash move that in some ways detracts from what we’ve seen before whilst offering an entirely new perspective on it. I’m not sure it totally works but I appreciate Alonso’s sheer brass balls for trying to pull it off in the first place.

Rating: WWW

Jauja is now showing in select UK cinemas and streaming on Curzon Home Cinema


WWWW = Wonderful
WWW = Worthwhile
WW = Watchable
W = Woeful

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