A mystic ‘western’
Breathtaking scenery, cinematography create background for unique adventure film
Jauja, from Argentina, is slow, strange, mysterious, hypnotic, and extraordinarily good-looking. It’s set in the Patagonian wilderness in the 19th century and its story centers on a Danish army officer (a brusque Viggo Mortensen) who, fully armed and on horseback, plunges into that wilderness with the aim of retrieving his runaway teenage daughter.
It’s kind of a western, but not at all a conventional one. While it has horses and guns and wide open spaces—and the bare bones of a familiar western plot—Jauja gives precedence to its harshly beautiful landscapes and the vast distances that dwarf the story’s ragged and rather lonely human dramas.
Timo Salminen’s colorful cinematography is a marvel of near-hallucinatory brilliance. (The film as a whole is the work of Lisandro Alonso, who is now well-established as one of the most esteemed Argentine filmmakers.)
Much of the film has a meditative calm to it. A brief gun battle is viewed mostly from a distance and in unhurried fragments. Emotional confrontations are evoked indirectly and often dominated by ominous silences. The potential for violence and the consequences of violence matter greatly; violent action is minimal.
And the story of Capt. Gunnar Dinesen (Mortensen) takes some increasingly exotic turns. He is part of a Danish military expedition in Argentine territory, and his daughter (Viilbjork Mallin Agger) is traveling with him. When an Argentine officer takes an openly lascivious interest in her, Dinesen is visibly upset, but it is the officer’s young aide (Diego Roman) who flees the camp with her.
Another Argentine officer, a flamboyant European aristocrat and an officer gone rogue all figure in various stages of Dinesen’s search. But by the time he’s catching fleeting glimpses of a trickster-like Indian warrior (Misael Saavedra), the story is taking on increasingly mystical overtones. A long-legged gray dog leads him to an encounter with a wise-sounding elder (identified in the credits only as “Dog Man”), and ultimately he finds himself in the orbit of a female guru (Ghita Norby) who resides in a mountain cave. A deadpan shift to a modern timeframe, late in the action, adds further mystery to Dinesen’s journey.