There’s more dialogue in the first reel of Lisandro Alonso’s “Jauja” — his first film made with a professional cast and a screenwriting partner — than in all four of the young Argentinian director’s prior narrative features combined. Yet this hallucinatory head-trip Western remains unmistakably Alonso’s film from first frame to last — a metaphysical road movie in which origin and destination are markedly less important than the journey itself. While the film’s intense visual beauty and the presence of star Viggo Mortensen assure it the widest distribution of any Alonso film to date, “Jauja” will still find its natural audience at the fests and specialized venues that have long championed the helmer’s boundary-pushing work.
At the start of “Jauja,” which also reps Alonso’s first foray into period filmmaking, we are in a remote military camp somewhere on the coast of Patagonia, and the time — though never expressly stated in the film — is 1882, near the end of the so-called Conquest of the Desert, a violent campaign designed to rid the jungle region of its indigenous inhabitants (derisively referred to as “coconut heads” by the army elite) and pave the way for European settlers. To grease this genocidal wheel, the Danish engineer Gunnar Dinesen (the superb Mortensen, who also co-produced the pic and co-composed its original score) has arrived with his 15-year-old daughter, Ingeborg (Viilbjork Agger Malling), in tow, charged with a surveying project in this soon-to-be “civilized” land.
Alonso and his co-screenwriter, the poet, journalist and playwright Fabian Casas, spend much of the movie’s first act immersing us in the ebb and flow of everyday life in this strange outpost, which seems perched on the edge not just of civilization, but of time itself. It is an eerily circumscribed reality, enhanced by the film’s rapturous yet claustrophobic imagery, framed by the Finnish d.p. Timo Salminen in the full-frame 4:3 aspect ratio (with slightly rounded edges), and drenched in saturated hues that recall the Lumiere brothers’ early experiments in color photography. Were we to turn a corner and happen upon the apes from the prologue of “2001,” the 16th-century conquistadors of Herzog’s “Aguirre, the Wrath of God,” or the frontier accountant of Jarmusch’s “Dead Man,” it would hardly come as a surprise.
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Alonso introduces a couple of other key characters in the form of a lascivious Lieutenant, Pittaluga (Adrian Fondari), who lusts rather openly after the underage Ingeborg, and the young soldier Corto, who sets the young woman’s heart aflutter in a way Pittaluga can not. Then, under cover of a fog-shrouded dawn, Corto and Ingeborg elope — a scene Alonso stages suggestively, like the fleeting residue of a dream. Dinesen promptly gives chase, and from that point forward, “Jauja” (the title refers to a mythical, El Dorado-like land of plenty) becomes something of a period companion piece to Alonso’s sophomore feature, “Los muertos,” which similarly followed a father (in that case, a recently paroled felon) journeying toward a hoped-for reunion with his estranged daughter.
Through the lush and forbidding landscape Mortensen’s lonely figure moves, occasionally stumbling upon the trail of the fearsome Zuluaga, a soldier gone stark raving mad. Mostly, though, the demons Dinesen must confront are those of a more existential nature, as a stranger in a strange land, moving ever further from home.
It’s easy to accuse films like Alonso’s — not just this one, but all of them — of being thin on narrative incident, a kind of journalistic euphemism for wishing such filmmakers would either get with the program and make “normal” movies like everyone else or stop wasting our precious time. But those open to other possibilities in cinematic language may marvel at Alonso’s ability to hold a viewer rapt through little more than landscape, movement and sound, and ideas (about parents and children, colonialism and its lingering discontents) that emerge implicitly rather than being directly stated.
In “Jauja,” Alonso saves his most dazzling trick for last: a sudden plunge down a Lynchian rabbit hole that should, by all means, rupture the film’s hypnotizing atmosphere, but instead pulls the viewer in even deeper. Reality and myth, already sitting in precarious balance here, collapse in upon each other, as do the two centuries separating “Jauja” from Alonso’s other work. Finally we emerge at the other end, slightly dazed, unsure of whether the dream has ended or another one just begun.