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Tableau vivant (“living picture”) is the term that comes to mind during the memorable opening shot of Lisandro Alonso’s (Los musertos) latest film Jauja. The Argentinian filmmaker takes on the western genre without abandoning his auteurist principles. The result is a mesmerizing slow-burner which won the FIPRESCI prize of the Cannes film festival’s “Un Certain Regard”-section.
The first tableau shows the film’s star Viggo Mortensen with his back turned to the completely immobile camera. He is Captain Dinesen, a Danish engineer on a quest to find the mythical Jauja, a place that stands for paradise on Earth. The other person in the scene is his daughter Ingeborg (Viilbjørk Malling Agger), yearning for the company of a dog who will follow her everywhere. The background provides a first glimpse of the hugely important Patagonia desert. When Ingeborg disappears, Dinesen embarks against all odds on a lone rescue mission.
Jauja is in its essence a classical western with a metaphysical twist told through the lens of slow cinema. Alonso takes a minimalist approach to the man-on-a-mission story featuring horses, cowboys and Indians in a narrative that owes a debt to John Ford’s masterpiece The Searchers. Ford famously used images of Monument Valley in several of his films and the landscape takes an equally prominent position in Jauja. The Patagonia desert provides a diverse, striking backdrop for the protagonist’s solitary journey. As his distance from the seafront grows, the vivid green of the fauna is gradually replaced by beautiful but lifeless rock formations. The film is shot in the rare 1.33:1 aspect ratio with rounded corners, which give it an unusual, unique look. Some people will find the near complete lack of tempo and action frustrating, but Alonso rewards the patience of those who are willing to settle into his work.
The casting of Viggo Mortensen as a John Wayne-esque hero is essential to the film’s success. His contribution goes beyond his performance: he is credited as a producer, composed the music and contributed to the Spanish, French and English subtitles. On the screen, the film is carried entirely by its frequently solitary star. The wrinkles around Viggo’s eyes convey as much as his emotional outbursts; his charisma cuts through the hostile landscape. His emotional presence demands the audience’s attention.
The final stages of Jauja then depart from the western template and the film takes a turn for the philosophical as our hero encounters a stray dog and an elderly lady, who may or may not be an incarnation of his daughter, in the wilderness. I hesitate to reveal further details, but David Lynch, Andrei Tarkovsky and Ingmar Bergman are three names that came to mind. When this radical shift comes, it feels natural and almost intuitive. Even a completely unrelated epilogue which raises more questions than it answers, seems weirdly appropriate in the strange world of Jauja.
Jauja is a must see for admirers of Lisandro Alsonso and of slow cinema in general whereas western-fans will appreciate the film’s engagement with the conventions of the genre. It is an unusual, fascinating piece of cinema that touches upon existential questions about determination, love and death while losing itself in the beauty of a spectacular landscape.