A spare and audacious exploration portrait of colonization in late 19th century Patagonia
Lisandro Alonso established his reputation as one of the most singular cinematic minimalists on the modern festival circuit with a series of glacially-paced, oneiric semi-documentaries that follow figures – and that’s a better term for them than characters – as they embark on vaguely-defined quests through vast stretches of land. He renders familiar images alien simply through camera placement, lengthy takes and colour saturation. His work can be roughly categorized as “slow cinema”, but unlike most filmmakers, he doesn’t associate the aesthetic with a regressive sort of cinematic literalism, he instead uses shot duration as a basis for his extraordinary hallucinatory images. Jauja marks a substantial departure for Alonso: it’s the only film in his oeuvre that has a genre framework, professional actors, fully-realized characters and some semblance of a three-act narrative.
Captain Dinesen is a Danish engineer aiding a group of military colonialists in late 19th century Patagonia. Upon awaking in the middle of the night to find that his 15-year-old daughter Ingeborg has eloped with a young soldier and travelled into indigenous territory, he ignores the warnings of his comrades and sets off on his own to retrieve her. Looming over his journey is the threat of the Colonel Kurtz-like Zuluaga, an ex-soldier who not so long ago wandered into the desert, was taken in by a native tribe and is now rumoured to murder all Europeans who approach his land.
Jauja is one of many recent films to de-mythologize the Western genre by dialling down the pace and stripping it of incident (in addition to complicating simplistic character dichotomies), however, unlike a film like Meek’s Cutoff, which does so in order to create a genuinely authentic portrayal of the hardship and boredom that truly characterized frontier life, Alonso mainly does so for comic effect – so instead of seeing the “hero” effortlessly hopping on a horse and riding into the distance, we watch a lengthy wide-shot in which he clumsily slips and restarts, increasingly losing his cool and allowing his carefully cultivated aura of European refinement to unravel. The character, in fact, is a parody of traditionalist, stoic Western masculine ideology; his single-minded search for his daughter is driven less by a sense of protection than of ownership and his desire to hold old to traditionalist, rationalist ideologies (including the driving need to re-assert a nuclear family dynamic) in a terrain where they have little application appears increasingly, comically, pathetic.
Alonso shoots in round-edged academy ratio that lends Jauja the look of an early silent film, especially as it’s combined with the largely static camera and deep focus 35mm cinematography which lavishes equal importance on every element of the terrain – leaves in the far background, lapping current in a lake, strands of grass shivering in the wind. Almost every scene is framed as a sequence of spare wide-shots crammed with negative space, the camera often lingering for a few beats after the characters have passed through – as if they have just happened to wonder upon a perfectly complete composition. Alonso’s painterly compositions bring to mind those of John Ford, with their low-hanging skylines that bisect the composition and hyper-saturated colour pallete. He also shares Ford’s ability to imprint complex historical and social associations upon natural landscapes, in this case creating a mythical transitional space which exists between the collective tragedy of colonization and the formation capitalist structures.
Naturally, the further Dinesen ventures into this terrain – which appears alternately frighteningly indifferent and actively hostile – the more vigorously he’s inducted into the thought processes of the indigenous people (the narrative trajectory that reminds one a little of Jarmusch’s Dead Man). His own disorientation is mirrored in the increasingly spatially disorientating form of the film itself; often Alonso will cut from a shot to a slightly different angle showing the same action that substantially undercuts our previous presumption about what the space looked like. This culminates in a late-game turn into total narrative surrealism, its last moments organized by association rather than linearity. This description may make Jauja sound dry and wilfully opaque, but there’s a sense of playfulness that runs throughout and Alonso’s themes remain clear and accessible even as he obfuscates his plot – the foremost of these being the awe-inspiring grandeur and permanence of the land itself, which makes the attempts of those who try to claim it as their own look pretty absurd.