Jauja, in Peru, was once thought to be a Mecca of milk and honey. Thought unreachable by man, this fact was attested to by the number of people who went missing while searching for it – according to the opening expository text dump. Both the geographic and mythical hold weight in Lisandro Alonso’s award winning film. This exemplary instance of slow cinema melds the best of Latin America & Scandinavia together as Father, Gunnar (Viggo Mortensen), and Daughter, Ingeborg, (debuting Viilbjørk Malling Agger) are travelling in Argentina. Galled at the Male attention his young Daughter is receiving at their campsite, Gunnar drives his Daughter into running away into the vast expanse of countryside and desert. Angry and scared for the safe return of his Daughter, Gunnar heads into the desert alone to track down his only family.
The first 40 minutes are dedicated to setting up small semblances of society whilst hyping the legend of the vast wilds that surround this camp of few. Pains are also made by writers Alonso and co-writer Fabian Casas to express just how unsuitable Ingeborg’s suitors are. One of whom is an older gentlemen introduced via a lingering shot of him pleasuring himself in a natural hot spring and the other is treat like a packhorse, the latter is who Ingeborg flees with. From this root the film becomes comparable to a minimalistic, beautifully framed art-house version of John Ford’s The Searchers.
Using the silent film aspect ratio (4:3), Aki Kaurismaki’s alumni cinematographer Timo Salminen gets a great deal of joy from the mythical and natural connotations of Jauja. There is a postcard beauty to his work, employing a seemingly infinite desert to imply an otherworldly quality that one would expect with the idea of Mecca. The more earthly bound ideas of Jauja have a great photographic beauty buoyed by an elegant use of natural light. This solitary, quiet film always has that tangible beauty at hand, giving the film something more than the painstaking depiction of the void.
A bedfellow to Salminen’s eye for a shot is Mortensen’s towering performance which contends with both the Danish and Spanish languages. Most of the dialogue finds itself in the opening forty, where Mortensen stands proud in the grand tradition of actors working outside their native tongue; this is no phonetic French by (the beloved) Ron Perlman in City of Lost Children. However, most of his best acting is silent and physical making further use of Jauja’s association with silent cinema.
Proud and powerful in his body language, Gunnar fights and kills those who wronged him and his Daughter with zest, but the further he wanders away from the familiar the more hangdog he becomes. His hunt for his daughter consumes everything about him; it’s only when he happens upon the significant finds of a stray dog and an old woman in a cave that we see semblances of the man he once was. It’s an elegantly simple performance by Mortensen, without him Alonso’s film would just be a series of beautiful photographs with deep meaning attached, a much bigger demand than slow cinema. Think Koyaanisqatsi more than Once upon a time in Anatolia.
Slow Cinema, auteurs and many other pigeon holes all share one common thread; they are constituted of films about something. Jauja is about the importance of family, which is simple enough, but its message is more about the varied perceptions across generations. This lends a more surreal quality to the epilogue. Jauja spends most of its time with Gunnar but in the finale scene it jumps back to Ingeborg in a situation that suggests her missing Father hasn’t even crossed her mind. Here Alonso and Casas imply that parents and children have very different views of family, a parent sees it as a reason for existing while the child sees it as a goal to overcome. Whether that is true or not is down to the individual, what is true, however, is the interesting way this has been weaved into the storytelling.
As mentioned earlier, Jauja blends the best of Scandinavia and South America – both have a great handle on the role nature plays in influencing the human experience; here it impacts things as separate as characterisation and presentation. As impressive as the film can be, it’s another picture to file in the classic critic box, the one labelled ‘this film isn’t for everyone’. Be that as it may, the sheer beauty of Timo Salminen’s camerawork and the pure performance from Viggo Mortensen are reason enough to watch this affecting spiritual Western.
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