New Horizons 2014: Jauja

Michael Pattison

It’s been six years since Lisandro Alonso made Liverpool, his visually sumptuous but largely underwhelming fourth feature. That film was yet another step into increasingly fictional territory for the Argentine maverick, whose feature-making career began in a distinctly documentarian vein with the striking La libertad (2001)—which was followed by the more unsettling Los muertos (2004) and the deadpan, subtly imaginative delights of Fantasma (2006). Alonso’s fifth feature, Jauja, which won a prize at Cannes this year, continues the writer-director’s general trend away from non-fiction elements while also belatedly confirming he can tell (with co-scripter Fabian Casas) an all-out story after all—minimal though it is.

Boasting the ever versatile and dependably alluring talents of Viggo Mortensen (who also co-produced), Alonso focuses his latest efforts on an ostensibly rugged landscape of mythical repute. Mortensen is Gunnar Dinesen, a captain stationed at a remote military camp in a South American desert. Dinesen’s primary task is to oversee a construction project in anticipation of the local natives being exterminated—a genocide supervised by shady Lieutenant Pittaluga (Adrian Fondari), from whose leering intentions Dinesen must protect teenage daughter Ingeborg (Viilbjork Agger Malling).

When Ingeborg flees in the night with Pittaluga’s more charming underling, however, Dinesen’s world falls apart. Though opening text tells us that the ancients referred to the mythical place of Jauja as a “land of abundance and happiness,” it also concludes that nobody ever found it. Cue Dinesen’s metaphysical journey, then, one that at times recalls The Searchers (1956), unfolding as a kind of A-to-B anti-thriller where B is a disorientingly bleak hellhole.

Like an exiled king returning from the desert with a thirst for old pleasures, Alonso reclaims his shared throne as one of the Original Gs of last decade’s ‘slow cinema’ resurgence, blasting away his imitators with an effortless sense of what does and doesn’t work. It’s the small details that matter: that eye-rollingly ludicrous shot of Pittaluga masturbating in a pool of water, followed by a wide-shot reverse and the lovely touch of Dinesen shaking his scarf free of collected dust. Catriel Vildosola’s typical sound design lends gentle immersion—a less bristly equivalent of the wood-on-wood period clobber of Jacques Rivette’s Don’t Touch the Axe (2007).

Working with Finnish cinematographer Timo Salminen, Alonso also makes this sometimes-tasking movie mercifully bedazzling on the eye. Dusk scenes are a conflict of stylised front-lighting set against the natural custard-tinted hues of the horizon, while that mid-afternoon moment in which Ingeborg and Corto descend out of frame to make love has a suitably saturated straw tinge. And then more elemental threats take hold, and the landscapes become harsher, the weather wetter, the tone much darker and mysterious.

Follow Michael on Twitter: @m_pattison

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