Review: Viggo Mortensen is lost in the wilderness of the impenetrable ‘Jauja’

CANNES – “Did you see the Lisandro Alonso?!” came the eager text from a friend not in Cannes, mere minutes after I had, indeed, seen Alonso's “Jauja” — an Argentine western turned existential comedy turned, well, any number of alternate-dimension subgenres. I  envied him his excitement. Alonso has built up a fiercely devoted band of admirers with his opaque brand of slow-cinema puzzle picture, as demonstrated in the likes of “Liverpool” and “Los Muertos”; for those of us who have never gained access to that club, “Jauja” is unlikely to bring us much closer. Intermittently playful, consistently confounding, finally petrified, it's a film of fussy, cultivated austerity; Alonsolytes will debate what it's hiding, while others will suggest “an actual movie” as the answer.

Initially, improbably, it seems that we're in for more hand-holding than usual from Alonso, as proceedings open with a lengthy block of text that helpfully gives context to the title — “Jauja” was once the former capital of Spanish Peru, but refers also to the Spanish term for an unreachable utopia. (The translated title is “Land of Plenty.”) Right upfront, then, we know that we're in the strict realm of the theoretical, the mythic; that this a quest film with no tangible destination, where the questions are effectively the answers. Sound precious to you? So might “Jauja,” though it's a film equally content to be gazed at or gazed into. There's a calming serenity to its images, whether its ideas entice you or not.

The setting, if it's not simply the imagination of poet/screenwriter Fabian Casas, appears to be the scratchy rural grasslands of an unspecified South American country — an environment evidently being fought over by rival Spanish and Danish military factions. Whoever wins, the indigenous Incan population loses, though there's hushed, awed talk of an enigmatic native renegade leader named Zuluaga. Tease out the subtext regarding the doomed future of colonial rule if you wish, though the politics here aren't as crisp as the assorted officers' dashing double-breasted uniforms: arrogantly uncamouflaged, they show up as lurid pops of pillarbox red and periwinkle blue against the yellowed underbrush.

Ready to call time on this evidently futile war is Danish captain Dinesen, played with a beardily set jaw by Viggo Mortensen — continuing his dalliance with off-piste Argentine cinema after 2012's dual-character thriller “Everybody Has a Plan.” His retreat, however, is postponed when his teenage daughter Ingeborg (Viilbjork Mallin Agge, clothed and lit like a figure in a Hammershøi painting) runs off with a rakish Spanish soldier. Dinesen sets off to retrieve her and, well, that's pretty much where the concrete narrative stops, as his horseback search leads him in long, labored circles around a landscape that appears to wilt with his own fading conviction — and the impatient viewer's will.

He finds at least part of his prey, though the objective has tacitly shifted by this point. Enter a morose Irish wolfhound to guide Dinesen toward… Jauja? El Dorado? His own center? “It doesn't matter,” announced Alonso at the film's Cannes premiere, correcting himself after initially expressing hope that the audience enjoyed his vision; that airy indifference marks his storytelling too. The landscape transforms; the chronology stretches; time and place become entirely inconstant coordinates. If the film is a Rorschach test, it's a very tidily composed one, boxed by cinematographer Timo Salminen in Academy ratio, complete with tweely rounded corners. 

Tonally and aesthetically, there are shades here of the post-colonial romanticism of Miguel Gomes' infinitely richer, intellectually porous “Tabu,” but with pokier ideas and more literal articulation thereof. “What is it that makes a life function and move forward?” Dinesen is asked in a climactic confrontation, his quest having as dead an end as the war that surrounds him. More prettily peculiar than provocative, and already a source of considerable delight to the Alonso faithful, “Jauja” may be a film about impasses, but I don't know if that excuses it being something of an impasse itself.