Thirty-nine year-old Lisandro Alonso is one of the most original and distinctive filmmakers to emerge in the early 21st century. Beginning with 2001’s La Libertad, the Argentinian director’s startling debut, Alonso has produced a body of work that boldly explores the permeable boundaries between fiction and documentary. He is, in this sense, an heir to the great Iranian auteur Abbas Kiarostami, whose experiments in hybridity (Close-up, the ‘Koker’ trilogy) remain among the most important cinematic interventions of the past quarter century. Discontent to continue as a disciple of Kiarostami’s alone, however, Alonso has found ever more exciting ways to reinvent his idiom with each successive film.
Jauja (2014, screening Thurs., April 9th at 7:30 p.m., Fri., Apr. 10th at 9 p.m. and Sat. Apr. 11th at 8 p.m.), the first of the director’s films to feature a professional cast and the first to be shot from a finished script, is less an extension of Alonso’s previous work (though it is still this in a few notable respects) than it is an invigorating departure, something radically new from the Argentine filmmaker. Set amid the Colonial Spaniard’s 1882 campaign to rid Patagonia of its indigenous peoples, Jauja centers on Gunnar, a Danish general assigned to scout the coastal wilderness (The Lord of the Rings’s Viggo Mortensen), and his pretty fifteen year-old daughter Ingeborg (Viilbjørk Malling Agger) who attracts the romantic desires of many among the territory’s woman-less denizens. When Ingeborg runs off with her boyfriend Corto, Gunnar sets off into the Patagonian wilderness to bring back his daughter, a journey that will prove increasingly dream-like, metaphoric and even metaphysical as he moves ever further from the last vestiges of civilization. As in the director’s La Libertad and his great Los Muertos (2004), this is another existential story of a man all alone in the Argentinian wilds. As one of the soldiers notes early in the film: “on the frontier one is alone relationships… are debilitating.”
The description of a ‘frontier,’ not to mention the film’s principle plot-line and even the cavalry costuming, all suggest the film’s debt to John Ford’s masterpiece The Searchers (1956). This indeed is a Western, albeit a Western that plays out in South America and owes every bit as much to the metaphysical, mystical art cinema of Andrei Tarkovsky. If this to suggest that Jauja may be a bit obscure, it most certainly is. After all, this is a film with a major star, for the first time in the director’s career, which nonetheless opens on a long-take, rear framing of Mortensen, which is then followed by a shot of another actor’s feet. Alonso, in this sense, takes a delectably anti-commercial approach to his first film to contain anything resembling a commercial asset. This is experimental art cinema at its most assertive. It is also a landscape cinema of almost unworldly beauty (see below), one that draws on both Tarkovsky (and his ‘Zone’) again, and also Michelangelo Antonioni–from which Jauja’s journey of exhaustion derives.
Speaking of references, the name Ingeborg also channels another importance source for Jauja: early cinema, and in particular the silent Scandinavian cinema (cf. Ingeborg Holm, 1913) of the early 1910’s–talk about obscure! Not only are Alonso’s lead father and daughter Danish (another key locale for early cinema, in addition to Ingeborg Holm’s Sweden); he also stages his scenes in the same depth-of-field for which this early golden age remains notable today; he shows a predilection for filming in nature–again like the Scandinavians; the film starts with an intertitle; and he even chooses to frame his images with daguerreotype-style masking. Jauja surely signals a return to the aesthetics of early cinema, albeit one that takes equal advantage of the color and stock manipulations made possible by the latest digital technologies. Alonso’s amazing use of over-saturated color blazes off the screen, providing a very unreal antidote to the film’s natural settings. A radical anti-naturalism, quite the direction for a filmmaker who has previously found his place between fact and fiction.
In closing, for the second consecutive blog post, I again find myself feeling the need to explain a film’s ending, without spoiling the story. Caught in the unenviable task, let me just offer that the picture’s late epistemic break may in fact relate to Alonso’s former hybrid strategies–consider the actress’s name in this section–while also carrying on his approach from his last feature, Liverpool (2008). There, as here, Alonso seems to content to end his film at a new narrative beginning, thus giving lie to what would seem a natural correspondence between the duration of the film and the story being told. Life, and different lives at that, live beyond and after the end of the story.