Viggo Mortensen takes a leisurely stroll through South American arthouse territory in Lisandro Alonso’s oddly compelling peculiarity Jauja (2014). From a screenplay by poet Fabian Casas, the film tells the story of Danish captain Gunnar Dinesen (Mortensen), something of a wanderer who has in tow his 15-year-old daughter, Ingeborg (Viilbjork Mallin Agger). We begin with a disparate group of men, dressed in vaguely 19th century get up, sitting on a rocky seashore. A soldier picks his teeth with a knife and an officer masturbates as he lies in a rock pool, while around them a monotonous bleating suggests the presence of goats. The shots are held for significant amounts of time as nothing happens.
It’s almost as if Alonso is carrying on from where Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) left off. As with Aguirre, Jauja is a title that suggests a lost city of plenty – an El Dorado. This alone could be reason enough for Captain Dinesen and his daughter’s presence. However, she’s obviously the subject of sexual curiosity by the men around her. The onanistic officer offers Dinesen a horse, none too subtly, while talking darkly about exterminating the “coconut heads” (as he calls the natives). Less subtle still is a young soldier who simply runs away with her in the night. Inge’s motivation is unclear, though she does go willingly. Is she sick of being dragged around the continent? Is it awakening sexuality? Does she really exist? All we know for certain is that a devastated Dinesen takes off after her, rifle in hand.
The main peril, aside from the hostility of the environment, is a Kurtzian figure called Zuluaga, a courageous and celebrated soldier who’s gone mad and started killing people. It’s immediately clear that despite his obvious experience, Dinesen is out of his depth. Mortensen plays him as a vaguely comic figure at first. He’s old, finding it difficult to mount his horse. Dressed in a double-breasted overcoat with a single medal and wrestling with his sabre, Dinesen wheezes and blinks, suspicious and preoccupied, regretful and yearning initially to go home. He doesn’t seem to fully understand the country and though his grasp of Spanish is weak, even his Danish sounds uncertain. With the loss of his daughter and his search beginning, Dinesen becomes increasingly desperate. Water is short and he has not equipped for the journey. To make matters worse, he soon finds evidence of Zuluaga’s brutal proximity. A bloodied body crucified at a totem site suggests a human sacrifice, or perhaps even revenge against the encroachment of Christianity.
Dinesen also comes across a man drowning in his own blood. Here, the long scene is accompanied by the gruesome sound of the man’s gargling breath. Among the many eccentric choices Alonso makes is the one to frame his film in a 4:3 aspect ratio with rounded corners, so that the images look like old-fashioned photographs from a family album. The images themselves are carefully composed and beautifully shot by cinematographer Timo Salminen, which is as very well as we usually have ten minutes or so to enjoy them. The story, such as it is, soon dissolves into an unreal drift. The journey is now a dreamlike odyssey; a voyage through time. Jauja won’t be for everyone and fans of Mortensen’s work should be prepared for the unusual. It is a demanding watch, but at the same time, Alonso’s latest has a bizarre, beguiling quality which drifts towards the sublime even if it never quite gets to its destination.
The 67th Cannes Film Festival takes place from 14-25 May 2014. For more Cannes coverage, simply follow this link.