The initial bewilderment around how to say the title of Argentinean filmmaker Lisandro Alonso’s latest film is little compared to the confusing elements featured throughout it. ‘Jauja’ (pronounced how-ha) is a Danish-language quasi-western in which father general Gunnar Dinesen (Viggo Mortensen) treks through fantastical desert landscapes in search of his fifteen-year-old daughter Ingeborg (Viilbjørk Malling Agger), after she wanders off with a local soldier. It has impressed in its extensive trail across the festival circuit, from Cannes to this year’s Glasgow Film Festival and is an example of unbridled cinematic escapism, where one man journeys into a mythical unknown shrouded in surreal symbolism.
Narratively, the project has been compared to John Ford’s epic tale The Searchers where John Wayne’s character seeks out his missing niece, but where the camera work there was expansive and unrestricted by boundaries, the framing here is neat and compact, filmed unusually at a 4:3 aspect ratio. Because of this experimental artistic approach, the scenes are picturesque and the tight use of depth and mise-en-scene is fascinating, and at times masterful. However, in contrast to the distance travelled by Gunnar, the storytelling is mostly static, not moving very far or very fast as the running time wears on. The lack of plot development and minimalistic dialogue eventually frustrates and chooses to puzzle its audience at every turn rather than offer any sense of clarity. A second viewing would maybe help solve the sequence of visual riddles it poses.
Viggo Mortensen, best known for his heroic portrayal of Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings film series, must have been an absolute shoe-in to take the leading role given his unique multilingual talents, having childhood roots in the filmmaker’s homeland of Argentina as well as his Scandinavian heritage. It’s a rare Danish speaking part for Mortensen though and also unheard of for writer-director Alonso to work with a well established acting name. The nuanced central performance is key to the film’s enjoyment as we bear witness to a range of fatherly emotions when his vast search descends into sheer peculiarity. His star quality gives the film the boost it requires to carry it through the painfully slow stages, and just about makes the lengthy expedition worthwhile.