The poetics of Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja are readily distinguished from the film’s opening scene. Father and daughter sit side by side in a field of grass, both of them quite still. If there’s movement in the shot, it’s found in the flowing reeds. The image is toned in a deeply saturated colour, the corners of the frame rounded in the style of a vignette.
The shot is a vintage photograph, a tinted etching from a 19th century novel, a window into another time. Jauja looks like a period piece – its framing denotes it as one in a strikingly self-conscious way – while in fact it’s only posing as one. For the moment, we could assume we’re in a Western: with its costuming of the pioneers and its iconography of mighty, rugged landscapes, the Western-outline is not to be ignored. Father and daughter, here played by a staggering Viggo Mortensen and debut actress Viilbjørk Malling Agger, are strangers in a strange land, uprooted and dependent on each other among the fiercer natives. Agger vanishes – was she kidnapped? A search is instigated that should bring the lost loved one back, and calls to mind the exploits of Ethan Edwards in John Ford’s The Searchers (1956).
Jauja accurately renders a sense of what it must be like to undertake a quest without an immediate end. Its nature is depicted in real time, with its undertaker traversing the frame from one corner to the next in long, static shots that show us the trajectory of a journey to nowhere, documentary depictions of bathing and other daily routine included. And still, there’s no tedium to be found. We pay attention to the slightest details: there’s the wind in the trees to be looked at.
Alonso reduces cinema to its essence, and plays on our strange fascination with movement on screen, with the here and now of a specific moment in time. It recalls the fascination with the first films of the Lumière brothers, thrown back onto itself.
And then it gets slightly more metaphysical. This one’s a journey that will not culminate. The daughter, as he knows her, will not be found. Viggo’s not fettered: he continues to roam, climbing an inhospitable mountain range that comes straight out of a Caspar David Friedrich painting (Der Watzmann, anyone?). The link is not unintentional: Viggo starts off a searcher but ends up a wanderer, questing, but losing track. There’s no gratification found in finishing off his daughter’s mortally wounded amant, and no plot point checked off to a definitive ending.
What makes a life function and move forward? The quote is a question that is posed visually in an existential parable that uses stepping stones of a genre we know, and conventions we can tune in with: Alonso provides us with an outline, and then reduces it. When the quest is turned upside down and mimics the silhouette of a Freudian dream fantasy from a time that’s much like our own, Alonso’s period piece gets another meaning still, as a slightly outmoded, but strikingly beautiful retake on that special strain of surreal seventies cinema, following up on Jodorowsky’s El Topo (1970) and Louis Malle’s Black Moon (1975).