Jauja (2015)

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“On the desert frontier, one is alone.”

Having now seen Jauja twice, I can say that this is masterful filmmaking at its most boring. All too often gorgeous films come along and are given praise because of their looks. Because they are so absurd, so selfishly told, that commendation comes their way for being shrouded in mystery. It escapes comprehension, not because of a foundational ambiguity, but because for the most part, it just doesn’t make any sense. “But that’s rewarding! That’s fresh and different!,” says the unconventionalist dressed and behaving in the most conformist of ways. I cannot imagine anyone sitting through Jauja in one straight viewing and enjoying themselves, getting anything out of it other than questions destined to go unanswered. It’s one thing for a film to distance itself from its audience with a purpose; it’s another to leave us stranded. Not often in my recent memory have I disliked such a gorgeous picture this much. Jauja is an illegible movie dressed in the beautiful and literal trappings of its own eldritch story.

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It’s clear from the start that Jauja is exactly what it was meant to be. And personally, that turned me away from the film even more. It plays like a silent feature, only having maybe 30 pages of actual dialogue for the nearly two-hour feature. But unlike the products of the pre-talky era, little to no music is utilized, instead giving us ambient noise in a fairly lifeless and mythologically influenced storyworld. It took me two tries to get through the first time, falling asleep 45 minutes in and then begrudgingly finishing the following evening. Jauja allows for interpretation, and it’s impossible for me to admit that there is any gold here to be discovered. Anything worthwhile to be mined from its cavernous father-daughter tale. Films like this are disconcerting for me because I know that if I sat down with director Lisandro Alonso and just listened to his reasoning and his explanations, that I would ultimately feel enlightened and enamored with the movie. That’s one of the most obvious signs of indulgent filmmaking. Art shouldn’t need thorough explanation. Jauja asks us to read without allowing us to understand. It’s written in expertly penned Pig Latin.

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Set in the 1880’s, Viggo Mortensen stars as Captain Gunnar Dinesen, a Danish military man in the Argentinian desert with his daughter Ingeborg (Viilbjørk Malling Agger). He longs for home back in Denmark; she enjoys the emptiness of the Patagonia. Performed well by both actors, the tandem don’t seem to have enough motivations to be understood. I rationalized that I missed something the first time around, that character details and story cues simply went over my head. And after revisiting the film, I must firmly stand in my belief that they just are not there. We know that the metaphors riddled throughout are purposeful. All the while, they are unsustained, crossing back and forth between the perceived reality and the possibility of a sort of magical realm, a world seen but not felt. The bridge joining together our thought processes and the trajectory of the story is never feasibly fused. Jauja paints us a castle, invites us over, but forgets to let down the drawbridge. Only those willing to swim through the moat will find respite in this story.

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However groundbreaking some may deem Alonso’s film (which, to its credit, is in fact gorgeously photographed), Jauja is a clear harbinger and an apparent ode to the great Ingmar Bergman. Ingeborg is plucked straight out of The Virgin Spring and placed into the disillusionment of Wild Strawberries. Those two films by Bergman are incredible, even timeless pieces of art. Their themes transcend time and place and stand firmly grounded in commentary on humanity, just set in its own particular location and period. However, Jauja is Napoleon-esque, with a superiority complex guided by the classics which came before it. Maybe one day I can learn to love this movie. That I will be informed enough on 19th century global structure and cultural divides to really form a sound opinion. In cinema, greatness is not interpreted; it is apparent. Jauja will put you to sleep, searching for a dream landscape which doesn’t have to do much to be more interesting.

“He doesn’t understand why you go away for so long.”

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

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