Sunday, March 22, 2015

Review: Jauja

Image courtesy of The Cinema Guild.
Lisandro Alonso's "Jauja" is a strange historical epic that is equally hypnotic and lethargic. While I can't quite recommend it, the film has its share of merits and, at its best, casts a peculiar spell over the viewer.

The film is set in the 1880s in the sparsely populated region of Argentina known as Patagonia. Viggo Mortensen plays Captain Gunnar Dinesen, a Danish engineer who has come to the region, where the "Conquest of the Desert" is being carried out against the area's aboriginal population by the Argentine army, with his daughter, Ingeborg (Viilbjork Malling Agger).

Dinesen appears uncomfortable with the gruff Argentine soldiers, who make no attempts to mask their lusty feelings toward Ingeborg, and he tries to keep her at all times at arm's length. But one night, Ingeborg unexpectedly disappears with a young soldier, the two youths fleeing into the seemingly endless desert expanse. The rest of the film involves Gunnar's attempt to track them down, riding into the desert alone on a horse.

For those unfamiliar with Alonso's films, such as "Liverpool" and "Los Muertos," his work is punctuated by visual beauty and deliberately slow pacing. In fact, numerous shots are static images with virtually no movement taking place within the frame. In other words, viewers with little patience need not apply.

"Jauja" is an often beautiful film, but its story is so mannered and often slight that the hypnotic effect it creates only goes so far. Late in the film, there are some surreal developments as Gunnar stumbles upon a cave, where an older woman appears to live with a pair of twin beds. Whether this woman actually exists or is a mirage, of sorts, is left to the imagination.

And near the film's end, the action suddenly shifts unexpectedly to a seemingly modern day manor where the actress who plays Ingeborg roams about its grounds. Similar to the woman in the cave, there's no particular context, but the combination of these two sequences combined with the lush photography of Gunnar walking the deserts of Patagonia during the film's first half make for a somewhat dreamy experience. If the first two-thirds of the film had been as intriguing as its unusual culminating sequences, I might have warmed to "Jauja" a little more than I did.

All in all, the film is not a bad one. It's often entrancing, the visuals are beautiful and one can't help but be impressed that Mortensen can give a solid performance in two languages - Danish and Spanish. The pieces in "Jauja" do not come together, but it seems obvious that they are not necessarily meant to. The film is of the type I can appreciate, even if my overall feelings for it are lukewarm.

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