Reviewed by: Harvey Karten for Shockya. Databased on Rotten Tomatoes.
Director: Lisandro Alonso
Screenwriter: Lisandro Alonso, Fabian Casas
Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Viilbjørk Agger Malling, Ghita Norby, Adrian Fondari, Esteban Bigliardi
Screened at: Review 2, NYC, 3/3/15
A personal note with some bearing on this film: I spent a good part of my career teaching history and economics in high school. The so-called World History course made no mention of China except as a place for the British to set up trading posts. There was no mention of Africa except as a place for goodies to be stolen by British, French, German and Belgian imperialists. As for South America, despite a concentration in the syllabus for stories of genocides and the advice of educators to teach about atrocities so we do not repeat those mistakes, there was nothing about the genocide against the indigenous population of the Patagonia area of Argentina in which some 1,000 Indians were wiped out and 15,000 displaced by the colonialists who wanted that vast, hostile area for developing agriculture. In this Conquest of the Desert, there would have been some interesting stories about how Chile tried to ally itself with the Indians so that Chileans could seize some of that land for themselves. Cruel world.
For “Jauja”—the name given to Patagonia to signify a mythical Eden or Shangri-La—Lisandro Alonso creates a movie with saturated colors and minimalist dialogue to convey a mythological kingdom. Don’t be surprised when you witness an alleged meeting, more likely a hallucination by the principal character with an elderly woman who talks in zen koans “a man is not all men,” and who welcomes her guest in the middle of a vast wasteland offering him food and drink. Aside from that encounter with a mirage, Gunnar Dinesen (Viggo Mortensen) appears to have a death wish, wandering with his horse, a rifle and a pistol through a miserable outback without sufficient water or food for more than a couple of days. And of course there’s the ever-present threat of attack by hostile Indians.
You expect this kind of film from director Lisandro Alonso, whose “Los Muertos” has a similar story line: a 54-year-old just out of jail now looks for his adult daughter, an air of mystery about him, as he heads in a small boat across a vast river to find his girl’s digs in a swampy, remote area. If you recall Werner Herzog’s “Aguirre: the Wrath of God,” you’re on Alonso’s radar. If you did not like “Aguirre,” watch out.
Dinesen is a Danish engineer who arrives to Patagonia in 1882 with his 15-year-old daughter Ingeborg (Villbjørk Malling Agger). The film opens with a theatrical pose, father and daughter facing opposite directions but connected to each other. Alonso supplies the first of long takes by focusing on an officer masturbating in a stream, cuts to a Lieutenant Pittaluga (Adrian Fondari) who has eyes for the underage Ingeborg, with Finnish cinematographer’s lens settling on a young soldier Corto, who has captured Ingeborg’s heart. The young soldier and the captain’s daughter elope with Dinesen in pursuit, a fool’s errand given the hostility of the terrain and of a native population which, history tells us, have run their own little genocide by killing soldiers and taking the women into slavery. Most of the story moves at a pace that would cause walkouts by less sophisticated moviegoers but proves ultimately to be a treat to the artistically inclined fans.
When the story shifts from Patagonia to Denmark, we are in for a twist not unlike that of Night Shyamalan’s 2004 movie “The Village,” though for most of the running time you’re likely to think of Gus Van Sant’s “Gerry,” wherein two young men go into the desert without sufficient food or water. Needless to say Viggo Mortensen turns in a spectacular performance with his confused perambulations in the desert while he is matched easily enough by Agger as his daughter Ingebord. Whether or not you are riveted by the performances, you can’t help admiring the landscape, the film screened with an odd 4:3 aspect ration (with rounded corners) to simulate a closed-in scenario in the midst of a vast desert, though it’s doubtful that the Argentine Tourist Board would use any part of the movie to advertise the wares of its favorite country.
Unrated. 108 minutes. © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – B+
Acting – A-
Technical – A-
Overall – B+