Jauja (2014), the tantalisingly absurdist new feature from Argentinian Lisandro Alonso, is a film that lives and dies by its final act. Without giving anything away, the finale involves a dramatic shift that sequesters what came before it and views it through a whole new lens. By using the cinematic grammar of the Western to shed light on history as a psychological burden, it is a film about how narratives of national anxieties are framed. The eleventh hour thematic lurch may alienate some viewers, but it is what gives Jauja its purpose. It is the moment at which a strange, almost rarefied genre picture becomes a dream of imperialist reckoning.
Viggo Mortensen plays a Danish engineer helping the Europeans “civilise” the badlands of Patagonia sometime in the late nineteenth century. He’s there with his beloved ingénue daughter, Ingeborg (Viilbjork Agger Malling), who swiftly becomes the object of desire for a young soldier. One evening, the pair elope under the cover of night, leaving her father incandescent and desperate to find her. With its image of God’s lonely man, out of luck and out of time, clambering to save his daughter from the clutches of a force he doesn’t comprehend, our minds are immediately cast to John Ford’s fin-de-siècle masterpiece, The Searchers (1956). Alonso pitches the first two thirds of the film as the austere inverse of these classical genre counterpoints. He brings a sense of self-consciousness to the influences.
Indeed, the very act of using the 4:3 aspect ratio in 2014 is a form of deliberate artifice; an anachronism akin to a proscenium arch, inviting the viewers to treat the events unfolding within as make-believe. In this vein, each composition is calibrated to the point of theatricality which, in spite of the surrounding wilderness, gives the impression of an elaborate stage set or – in keeping with the film’s ultimate destination – a dreamscape. The juxtaposition between the archaic framing and the crystalline DCP is somewhat disorientating. Is what we are seeing something real filtered through a lie? Is the construct a trick to get us to the heart of the matter?
These sections – recalling the meta-Westerns of Monte Hellman – could easily stand alone as oddball genre pieces. They are beautiful, haunting and even funny. But Jauja is ultimately about the destination. The title refers to a mythical El Dorado-like utopia of happiness that’s just out of reach. Like Werner Herzog’s Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972), it purposefully makes a connection between the compulsions of empire and fictional Shangri Las. It is yet another of Jauja‘s juxtapositions; the aggression of imperialism and the flighty fantasy of heaven-on-earth. We don’t see any atrocities, but they are present in the background, first as allusions, then as decades-long guilt. It’s a peculiar yet powerful work.