“There are two constants in [Lisandro] Alonso’s cinema,” writes Quintín in Film Comment: “nature and the desire to confront the viewer with primitive ways of life that are far removed from so-called civilization. Cinema becomes a space in which man inhabits indescribable realms of human nature.” Further in:
After Liverpool, it was said that Alonso resolved to change his approach in an effort to avoid repeating himself. And Jauja is a change. To begin with, Alonso is going for neither conventional cinema, to which he is unwilling to conform, nor the costumbrismo (representation of ordinary life) style of dramaturgy that forms the nucleus of current Argentine cinema. His risk-taking approach has even less to do with academicism, with the repetition of a formula that maintains his position in the festival world, where his explorations end up being mistaken for miserabilism adorned with virtuous images, a cinema about marginalized people made for museums. Alonso has never aspired to engage with ethnography or installation art, but instead, with Jauja, aims for something purely cinematographic (or rather, impurely cinematographic, following André Bazin’s view that true cinema is an “impure art” always on the brink of being something else).
Jauja is the first time that Alonso has collaborated with a writer and with an internationally recognized star. Both were crucial factors in enabling him to venture into new territory, resulting in his most important film to date.
“It is 1882 on the Patagonian coast, during the ‘Conquest of the Desert,’ a bloody campaign to drive the indigenous peoples out of the jungle, to make the region safe for European settlers,” writes R. Emmet Sweeney at Movie Morlocks. “[Viggo] Mortensen plays Dinesen, a Danish engineer who will plan the future European-style cities that will replace the wiped-out cultures. He is there with his daughter Ingeborg (Viilbjork Agger Malling), who soon absconds into the jungle with a young soldier. As Dinesen follows her deeper into the country, rumors persist that an ex-soldier, Zuluaga, has gone mad and gone ‘native,’ slaughtering the Europeans he comes across. Fugitive signs of Ingeborg emerge and dissipate, but Dinesen trudges on into something like madness…. The ending is a time-and-space shifting mystery that lays beyond my grasp, images of a fecund forest overgrowing the past, drawing me back in.”
“Alonso is exploring historical and political questions with a new directness,” finds Michael Sicinski in the Notebook. “Jauja (the title refers to a mythical El Dorado) combines Alonso’s ongoing interest in landscape and bodily activity with the colonial unconscious, the sense that historical atrocity haunts the land upon which modernity is erected. If earlier Lisando subjects like Vargas (of Los muertos) or Misael (La libertad) were avatars of Argentina’s class divisions, the nation’s financial disarray as the penumbra of a deeper post-colonial class division, then Dinesen is an early patrician interloper, a well-intentioned human mistake calling from out of the past.”
“The opening sequences contain possibly more dialogue than all of Alonso’s earlier films combined, and build a misleadingly sturdy, Fordian premise that the rest of the film proceeds to luminously dismantle,” writes Fernando F. Croce, also in the Notebook, where he relishes Jauja’s “narcotizing feeling of mischief, which suggests Apichatpong Weerasethakul reimaging his favorite Hugo Fregonese Western.”
“As shot by Timo Salminen, the film’s square frame boasts colors so rich they threaten to tip into fauvism, and deep background is used to such careful, precise effect that several scenes will likely lose their impact on home video thanks to action so small it can barely be seen on a big screen,” notes Jake Cole at the House Next Door. “The film eventually takes sharp detours that befuddle the already interpretive nature of the story, adding layers that even the filmmaker admits he doesn’t fully comprehend.”
Update: “There is no logical explanation for [Dinesen’s] discovery of a lair in which resides not an animal but an old woman (Danish legend Ghita Norby),” writes Howard Feinstein at Filmmaker. “Let’s just say she turns out to be Woman, full stop. Following this revealing encounter, Alonso takes us on another trip that also defies reason. A movie that had begun by focusing on mere carnality… shifts gears with a cut and dares pierce other dimensions. Alonso has chutzpah in spades: he brings to life an updated Twilight Zone-like effect inside a square with rounded corners, very silent cinema, as antiquated a shape as you could come up with. A multitasking genius, he ruptures time both inside and outside the frame.”
Updates, 10/8: “As the story veers into mythopoetic wonders, some of its literary tropes get heavy-handed,” writes the New Yorker‘s Richard Brody, “but Alonso’s audacious leaps of time, his incisive view of the wiles of combat and the rigors of survival, and his ingenious reflection of present-day splendors in past plunder lend the visually sumptuous experience a haunting depth.”
In the Voice, Danny King, too, finds that “the concluding section of Jauja, in which Dinesen descends into some black witch-hole in the middle of a surging storm, is so unexpected, confusing, and time-warping that it might as well be subtitled ‘Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite.’ It’s this section that cements Jauja as Alonso’s most narratively knotty film yet—the one where looking and listening might not quite be enough—but the underlying vision of his cinema, its ability to captivate on a purely image-by-image basis, retains its customary potency.”
Update, 10/9: “In Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God (another film about a European and his teenage daughter in search of the New World’s riches), getting lost was the first step on the road to madness,” writes Jackson Arn at Criticwire. “For Alonso, getting sidetracked can only be an improvement if the quest is evil to begin with.”
Update, 10/12: The Paris Review‘s Justin Alvarez: “I walked out of the screening completely perplexed by the experience, but since then I haven’t been able to shake the film. It’s like a dream you hope to revisit until some sort of answer reveals itself.”
Update, 10/15: At Reverse Shot, Leo Goldsmith notes that “with Jauja, Alonso follows the ever-widening orbit his films have been tracing even further, nudging his trademark concerns away from the largely observational, vaguely romantic cinema of his earlier work into something considerably more expansive, playful, even supernatural.” At the same time, Jauja “coyly harkens back even further than classical Hollywood or silent cinema, and to pre-cinematic attractions like the panorama and early landscape photography.”
Update, 10/20: “It’s a lovely, evocative, disturbing film, but just as we see a shot of the protagonist disappearing into a valley in a bleak landscape of black volcanic rocks, there is a cut to an epilogue set in a beautiful Danish castle. The daughter wakes up and goes for a walk with some dogs. End of film.” Kristin Thompson is glad Alonso is the FSLC’s new filmmaker in residence, “but I hope Alonso will trust more in his story-telling ability and less in flashy tactics like this pointless epilogue.”
Updates, 10/21: “Two things are new here in Alonso’s unyielding world,” writes Carson Lund: “a leading lonely man with palpable emotions and motivations made clear to the audience rather than willfully obfuscated, and a willingness to allow the environment to assume the interior dimensions of this character…. Rationally, I’m not sold on where the film ends up, but sometimes it’s best to let ambiguities linger when the cumulative affect is this overwhelming.”
At photogénie, Vanity Celis suggests that the ending is a “strikingly beautiful retake on that special strain of surreal seventies cinema, following up on Jodorowsky’s El Topo (1970) and Louis Malle’s Black Moon (1975).”
Update, 10/27: Remarking on the echoes of The Searchers and the presence of Mortensen, Girish Shambu writes: “All of this pulls the film into an interesting conversation with classical cinema. What emerges from this encounter is an overwhelming sense of all the frictions—all the multiple points of abrasion and resistance—between this film and the studio-era works that partly inspire it. I registered these frictions most acutely when Jauja was, paradoxically, closest to classical cinema.”
Update, 12/9: Martin Dale talks with Mortensen for Variety.