The press notice for “Jauja” that opened today at Lincoln Center Cinema and the IFC gave me the impression that indigenous peoples might have played a major role in this Argentine film directed by Lisandro Alonso, whose work was unfamiliar to me:
Patagonia, 1882: In a remote military outpost, during the so-called Conquest of the Desert, a genocidal campaign is being waged against the indigenous population of the region. Acts of savagery abound on all sides. Captain Gunnar Dinesen has come from Denmark with his 15-year-old daughter, Ingeborg, to take an engineering job with the Argentinian army. Being the only female in the area, Ingeborg creates quite a stir among the men. She falls in love with a young soldier, and one night they run away together. When he wakes up, Captain Dinesen realizes what has happened and decides to venture into enemy territory to find the young couple.
As it turns out, the Indians only make a brief appearance in a scene approximately twenty minutes into the film. Actually it is only a single Indian who steals Captain Dinesen’s horse and rides off into the Argentine desert laughing triumphantly as he disappears across the horizon.
While the film starts off as if it were an updated version of “The Searchers”, it soon becomes something much more like “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” with Captain Dinesen [Vigo Mortensen] squaring off against the Patagonian desert rather than the jungle. Except that no Indians wreak justice on the Danish colonizer as they do in Werner Herzog’s classic, nor does the captain have to deal with resentful underlings who become convinced that his trek is suicidal. Instead, the narrative is much more about someone lost in the desert, evoking films such as Gus Van Zant’s “Gerry” or Nicolas Roeg’s “Walkabout”.
Until the final fifteen minutes of the film, there is not a single word spoken. If you expect Alonso’s film to be about survival strategies of the kind seen the aforementioned films or those seen in “All is Lost” or “Cast Away”, you will be disappointed.
So without conflict with Indians or Nature, what is the momentum that drives the film forward? The answer to that is to simply go with the flow since Alonso has made a powerful film in which Nature itself is the subject. You see some of the most awe-inspiring landscape that at least to me is worth the price of a ticket. Furthermore, your interest is sustained because you want to know Captain Dinesen’s fate.
What makes it all work is Finnish cinematographer Timo Salminen’s novel technique, which is perfectly suited to such a film. He uses a square frame instead of the typical 3×4 ratio most films use. Additionally, he eschews the shallow depth of field that most directors rely on to privilege a character against some backdrop. A shallow depth of field will typically show the actor in sharp relief against a blurry background. Instead, Salminen practically shows a tree a mile in the distance in as much detail as Vigo Mortensen’s face. Salminen has worked most frequently in the past with Aki Kaurismaki, the Finnish director whose work I have praised in the past but there’s nothing in his past work that has the look of “Jauja”.
Lisandro Alonso is a member of the New Argentine Cinema, which emerged as a reaction to the films of an earlier period that were engaged with the problems of military rule, repression and the like. While no single theme unites their work, film scholars generally agree that an aversion to conventional narrative is widespread.
In Gonzalo Aguilar’s “New Argentine Film: Other Worlds” that can be read on Google books with the usual massive amount of dropped pages, he characterizes Alonso and his peers as breaking with the Argentine films of the 1980s.
Instead of a message to decode, these movies offer us a world: a language, an atmosphere, some characters…a brushstroke—a brushstroke that does not respond to questions formulated insistently beforehand but sketches out its own questioning.
In his chapter titled “The Politics of Indeterminacy: Renouncement and Liberty in a Lisandro Alonso Movie”, he quotes the director: “I don’t want to tell a story. I’m only interested in observing.” That certainly describes “Jauja”. Considering the fact that I am generally averse to films that lack a story (I am moderating a panel on storytelling tomorrow at the Socially Relevant Film Festival for what that’s worth), my rapt attention to “Jauja” probably amounts to a rave review—even if I had no idea what point the director was trying to make.