“Jauja” is a quiet film, a very still film. Argentinian director Lisandro Alonso and his co-writer, novelist Fabian Casas, employ a minimalist approach to dialogue. Camera movement is also kept to a minimum. Characters frequently move out of the frame while the camera stays motionless. There are no abrupt transitions or jump cut edits. Music, as part of the soundtrack, does not occur until 78 minutes into the film. All of these choices demonstrate Alonso’s opposition to the frenetic pace and style of contemporary cinema. His films are demanding in that he forces the viewer to adjust to his concept of time.
“Jauja” is set in the 19th century, during the age of colonialism. Capt. Dinesen (Viggo Mortensen) is in the Patagonian region of Argentina to work on an engineering project. He has brought his teenage daughter with him. She falls in love with both the landscape and an Argentine soldier. She runs off with him. Dinesen sets off on a fruitless search to recover her. The name of Mortensen’s character is a reference to Danish writer Isak Dinesen. Her stories often contain elements of the fantastic, which is a clue as to the direction this film will take. There is a final scene in contemporary Denmark, with some suggestion that the entire story has been a dream.
Alonso uses few close-ups. That, combined with the sparse dialogue, means Mortensen’s body language becomes his principle mode of conveying Dinesen’s psychological state. Mortensen either gained weight for this role or is made to look heavier. He treads ponderously through the landscape. He slips and stumbles as he moves further into the desert, losing his footing both literally and figuratively. Color gradually leaches from the terrain suggesting Dinesen’s loss of vitality. Vibrant greens become grays and browns.
The color photography in “Jauja” is imaginative and stunning. Alonso and his cinematographer Timo Salminen use saturated color and an unusual aspect ratio (the frame of the film has rounded corners) to create a wholly original and striking look. The word jauja means a mythological land, an earthly paradise. The photography helps to create a magical, otherworldly feel and should be seen on the largest screen possible to experience its full effect.
During his desert odyssey, Dinesen meets a mysterious woman who asks “what is it that makes a life function and move forward?” Filmmaker Lisandro Alonso is like a philosopher; he enjoys asking questions but refuses to answer them.
“Jauja” (pronounced how-ha) was originally released in 2014. I watched it on DVD at my own expense. The film is not rated, but would probably qualify as PG-13 due to language and some sexual content. Extras on the DVD include a 2011 short film from Lisandro Alonso and a press conference with Alonso and Viggo Mortensen from the 52nd New York Film Festival. “Jauja” is in Spanish and Danish with subtitles. Review posted on 8/7/2015.