As Arid and Pointless as a Desert: A Review of Lisandro Alonso’s ‘Jauja’


Jauja, the latest film by Argentine filmmaker Lisandro Alonso has been somewhat of a festival success, playing to largely positive reviews at Cannes and the New York Film Festival last year. It opened in limited release last Friday, and was met with a mostly positive response from critics. Most of them made it sound like an immersive and surreal experience. I went to see it a couple of days ago, and must admit that I was completely immune to the movie’s supposed charms.

There is very little plot to the movie, so let’s get the description out of the way. Viggo Mortensen stars as a Danish military officer who seems to have embarked in some sort of business enterprise in the Argentinian desert. It all kind of goes to shit, however, when his young daughter Ingebort (Viilbjørk Malling Agger) goes missing, and he decides to venture -alone- into the wilderness to find her.

Jauja is a very slow-moving film. I am usually not the type of person who lashes out against slow cinema, but I think things are getting our of control. I understand if a filmmaker feels like the story they are trying to tell is better served by a measured pace, but both filmmakers and critics have to understand that something being slow and inaccessible doesn’t mean it’s good. Are we intimidated by the obtuse nature of these movies? Do we feel like we would be perceived as not sophisticated enough if we don’t like them? You know what, in this case, I am not afraid of being perceived as a low-class simpleton. Jauja is just plain boring.

Which is not to say that the movie is without merit, or that the people behind it are talentless hacks. Quite the contrary, actually. After watching Jauja there is no doubt in my mind that Alonso is a very talented man. The same goes for cinematographer Timo Salminen. The two work together to make Jauja one of the most beautiful looking movies in a long time. Either Alonso or Salminen (if not both) have an outstanding eye for framing. Filmed in 35mm film, the cinematography in this movie is a true delight. In terms of both lighting and composition, I’d be hard pressed to find a better looking movie this year.

I could extend the same kind of praise to Mortensen and his performance in the lead role. Despite the movie being almost exclusively focused on his character, he gets relatively little to do. But boy does he milk whatever he is given to some pretty fantastic extremes. Mortensen is fluent in Spanish, but like I said he plays a Danish man, and so, he speaks with an infinitely amusing accent. I guess this will probably go unnoticed by most American audiences, but Mortensen’s accent work here kind of fills me up with joy.

The more I write about the movie, the easier it is to remember the things I liked, and believe me, there are some pretty outstanding and amusing things in the movie. At the same time, it becomes all the more infuriating that Alonso didn’t seem to mind the fact that they were being lost in his insistence of making the movie as much of a slog as possible. There is so much dead time, as the director clings to an uneventful frame. Trying to remain engaged by Jauja becomes a battle of the wills.

I must admit that I lost the battle. Jauja gave me so little to work with that my mind was constantly wandering off into completely unrelated thoughts. Was this the director’s intention? I doubt it. A development in the third act snapped me back to pay attention, but it didn’t really clarify any of the intensions behind the movie, nor did it offer a clue into how one should engage with it. Reports from last year’s Cannes Film Festival say that, when asked what the movie meant, Alonso responded that it didn’t matter. I believe him, and I think that’s the problem.

Grade: 5 out of 10.

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