Generally speaking, all a viewer needs to do while watching a Lisandro Alonso film is look and listen. Starting with La Libertad (2001), the Argentine director’s features — the rest of which are Los Muertos (2004), Fantasma (2006), Liverpool (2008), and now Jauja — have foregone anything resembling conventional, narrative-based filmmaking. Alonso’s recurring subject — the relationship between people and the landscapes that surround them — is disarmingly primal, showing non-actors conduct their daily business (La Libertad’s subject is a woodcutter, for instance) in something resembling real-time. Alonso is not interested in backstory or psychology, at least not in the ways these are usually broached and exploited in mainstream moviemaking.
What fascinates him is the act of taking his camera into distant, rarely filmed locales — sparsely populated forests in La Libertad and Los Muertos, Tierra del Fuego in Liverpool — and capturing day-to-day life that otherwise would never be seen on-screen in such intricate detail. The New York Mets hat in La Libertad, the bag of bread and the jug of wine in Los Muertos, and the bottle of vodka in Liverpool are all among the most memorable objects in recent cinema, each invested with Alonso’s genuine, generous curiosity in the mundane.
Jauja, Alonso’s new work, both hews to this artistic outline and departs from it in pivotal respects. Most notably, Jauja stars the dexterous Viggo Mortensen (also the film’s co-producer and, along with Buckethead, a co-composer of the score), making this the first feature in which Alonso has worked with a professional actor. Moreover, Alonso collaborated on the screenplay with the poet Fabian Casas, and numerous critics have been quick to note that the establishing scenes of Jauja contain more dialogue than all of Alonso’s previous features combined. (It’s hard to imagine what a screenplay for those earlier films would even look like.) But Alonso shows us these conversations with extended takes, many of them stationary long shots, in which the characters’ physical behavior (Mortensen drying his feet as his companion buckles his pants) is as central as the words. And, as if assuring his faithful followers that he hasn’t altered his method, Jauja’s first scene opens with Mortensen’s back to the camera — a sly move that hints that, in Alonso’s work, the landscape is just as important as the people.
An opening title card, printed in Alonso’s standard red-on-black font, introduces the land of Jauja (pronounced “how-ha”) as a haunting, mythical place: “The only thing that is known for certain is that all who tried to find this earthly paradise got lost on the way.” This sticks in the mind as Alonso gets down to business setting up the situation. Set in 1882 in Patagonia during the Conquest of the Desert, the movie finds Mortensen’s character, the Danish engineer Gunnar Dinesen, departing from his encampment after waking up one night and finding his teenage daughter, Ingeborg (Viilbjørk Malling Agger) missing. Donning his uniform, packing the essentials (a rifle, a sword, a telescope, a canteen), and mounting his horse, Dinesen rides off into the night in search for her. It’s at this point that Jauja transitions into typical, wordless Alonso territory, with Mortensen battling the void of the desert on his own.
Shot on 35mm (with rounded-edge frames) in the Academy ratio, Jauja is a work of outrageous beauty, with Alonso and DP Timo Salminen creating images of breathtakingly rich colors (green moss, red pants, blue dresses) and vast open spaces: The backgrounds of each frame stretch all the way into infinity, rendering Dinesen’s destination perpetually, worryingly out-of-reach. Shot by shot, scene by scene, Jauja reminds us how intimidating (if also staggeringly gorgeous) this enormous landscape can be: behind any tree, rock, or bush could lurk an enemy.
But Alonso’s concerns here are less corporeal than they are mystical and other-worldly — 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.