Between its 1.33:1 aspect ratio, its elaborate costumes and its lush, bold colors, there are more than a few moments when Lisandro Alonso's Jauja looks like the spitting image of an old Technicolor drama. However, that's not really the way the film feels. There's no music on the soundtrack to give us a sense of how we're supposed to interpret a scene, the eternally still cinematography offers a lot of medium-to-long shots that never tell us where to look and the corners of the frame have been rounded off in a manner that suggests old photographs. Indeed, the experience of watching the film often feels closer to carefully examining a series of old photos than to watching a traditional piece of cinematic storytelling. How do these images connect? Who's that guy? What's happening outside the frame? Do these last few pictures have anything to do with the others? What does the title even mean?
Let's start with that last question. A brief bit of opening text reveals that Jauja is a mythical city rumored to be an “earthly paradise,” but that all who have sought it have eventually lost their way. Likewise, the film itself starts on stable, coherent ground and slowly – very slowly – begins to quietly remove small pieces of traditional narrative, linearity and logic until we've tumbled down some sort of Lynchian rabbit hole. Whatever you were looking for at the beginning is a foggy, distant memory by the end.
The film begins in Argentina in the 1880s, where we meet Captain Gunnar Dinesen (Viggo Mortensen, A History of Violence) and his teenage daughter Ingeborg (Viilbjork Malling Agger). The shifty Lieutenant Pittaluga (Adrian Fondari) has requested Ingeborg's hand in marriage, but Dinesen swiftly turns down the proposal. He warns Ingeborg not to get involved with the lieutenant, failing to realize that she's already in a relationship with a handsome young soldier named Corto. One night, Ingeborg and Corto run off together, forcing Dinesen to wander the vast, barren countryside in search of his missing daughter.
That fairly scant bit of plot fills up the bulk of the film's first half, which moves at a remarkably slow pace but nonetheless feels relatively easy to follow. The second half, however, gives us a look at Mortensen's increasingly surreal, seemingly endless search for his daughter, which leads him to some strange, hallucinatory places. We have no idea where the film is going or how things will conclude, but we begin to feel increasingly certain that the film isn't going to end with some sort of Taken-style rescue fantasy (indeed, we can't even be certain that she actually needs to be rescued)... or some sort of Taken-style anything, for that matter.
Jauja falls well within the confines of Slow Cinema, offering takes that feel absurdly long in contrast to the hyperactive cutting of most modern movies. It's not uncommon for the camera to just sit there for one or two or three minutes, allowing us to observe as various characters (but usually Mortensen, whose eyes have rarely seemed so full of sadness and distress) do simple, mundane things (eating, thinking, masturbating, walking). Dialogue is on the minimal side (we hear multiple languages over the course of the film, but despite Mortensen's presence, never any English), and there are long stretches in which the only things you'll hear are the alternately ominous and serene sounds of nature. Though this approach will obviously limit the film's audience, the slow pace aims to make the ordinary feel extraordinary: the slightest little bits of forward momentum feel exciting, and the brief, tense moments when the cuts are only 10-15 seconds apart feel breathless. Yeah, yeah, I know. Again, it's not for everyone, but if you surrender to it, you may be surprised by how strangely hypnotic the whole thing is.
I was more or less onboard with the movie – as baffling as it was – until the final few minutes, which took a leap that I didn't really know what to do with. Even so, I'm still thinking about it and wrestling with it, and I can't stop running the film's most striking images through my head. There's an occasional sense of bone-dry humor built into the film's DNA, too, as Alonso slyly plays around with your expectations about what you expect to see and where you expect to see it. I couldn't even begin to tell you what Jauja is “actually” about, but it's a well-cooked meal with a very distinctive flavor.
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 110 minutes
Release Year: 2015