If Lisandro Alonso’s “Jauja” is suppose to mimic the form of an old-fashioned picture then the cinematography and coloring elevates it to a mysteriously vibrant showcase of images, many of them still shots. In times where not much is happening in regards to the human characters, these still shots bring out the fascination with the landscape, one that seems to not only hide truths but slowly strip away at humanity in a sense, a deconstruction of civilization and all of its discontent, if you will. The film can superficially be described as a combination between “The Searchers” and Conrad’s novella, “Heart of Darkness.” While both comparisons are apt to an extent, they do not encapsulate a film that remains defiantly still but forceful. It moves like the mind wanders in meditation, and when Gunner, played with abstracted power by Viggo Mortensen, loses sight of his daughter in the vast land of Patagonia, he wanders in a withering meditative state, one that lingers in contemplation. Whether it loses its way can be argued, but it is a unique take on familiar themes.
Gunner’s daughter, Ingeborg (Ghita Norby), leaves during the night with a slave, Corto. A deserting soldier amassed a small army of indigenous people leading them wearing a dress. The former narrative takes precedence in what we see, what is tangible. The latter story hovers underneath in a intriguing limbo of both mystery and even understanding. When Gunner searches for his daughter alone, both stories collide with the symbolic power reminiscent of Alejandro Jodoworsky’s work, except not as enunciated. As stated in the opening sentences, the film is shot in a 4:3 aspect ratio with the corners curved as though to invoke old photographs. Yet, within the 4:3 frame colors protrude with a gleaming sense of awe, projecting from the diversely weathered landscapes. Green and yellows pop out with almost alarming density while retaining a sense of pristine naturalism. Maybe, it is somewhere between a harsh realism and the luminism practiced by many American painters of the mid to late 19th century. Either way, colorist Oyvind Stiauren exhibits worthy skill in further animating an already animated environment.
Viggo Mortensen, who speaks in Danish and rough Spanish, is completely entranced in this role. There is a sort of gruffness that comes with both his voice and his rough face, a sign that he may be just as weathered as the landscape he traverses. Yet, many of the shots, no mostly all of them, are wide shots so the details of his face and his facial expressions are diminutive. Rather, the physicality of his performance, the devolution of Gunner’s walk, for example, is the visual focus for his performance. Mortensen doesn’t stop there, he also composed the music. Though it is quite sparse, the score serves either as a counterpoint or a supplement to what we see on screen, being that the music is quite modern with electric guitar though the film takes places many years before its conception.
The narrative structure is elusively cyclical. There is a notion that a continuity is taking place but it is hard to exactly pinpoint, though it can vary based on how you approach the film (and there are many open avenues). If we treat this as an indictment on colonialism then there is a tendency to describe Mortensen’s character as being swallowed up by something he doesn’t understand. Yet, it is only a possibility and when the film turns in a startling direction close to the end, the final pieces begin to fall but are never placed into the rest of the puzzle. It is ambitious and, for the most part, ambitiously invigorating. Yet, it could also leave such a bewildering impact that the film’s significance may dwindle to some. Having said that, “Jauja” has this aesthetic suction that attracts an eye for transient beauty. Moreover, this lingering mystery, and ultimately the way in which Alonso’s pacing creates surprise at the perfect moment, rests in your imagination and spawns some sort of obsession inside. I know I have not been able to keep this film out of my mind.