Denmark/Argentina (2014) Dir. Lisandro Alonso

Argentinean director Lisandro Alonso is not a director I am familiar with but the plot summary for this film (courtesy of LOVEFilm) gave the impression that an exciting historical drama was awaiting me. Instead I got a dense, slow moving, sparse and somewhat indulgent arthouse head-trip with a flimsy narrative that disappeared after the first act.

Set in the 1880’s a small group of Danish travellers are in Argentina in search of the fabled Jauja, a mystical land of happiness. Leading the party is Captain Gunnar Dinesen (Viggo Mortensen), along with his 14 year-old daughter Ingeborg (Viilbjørk Malling Agger) who, as the lone female, attracts the attention of the much older Lieutenant Pittaluga (Adrián Fondari).

But Ingeborg is already in love with young solider Corto (Diego Roman) and when Corto is challenged to find proof about a former soldier who disappeared into the desert and now lives as a bandit dressed as a woman, he takes Ingeborg with him. The next morning an angry Dinesen goes in search of the runaway couple ill prepared for the hardships which wait out on the desert plains.

A rather straightforward and perhaps conventional plot with absconding lovers being pursued by a protective father but if we have learned anything from cinema the rewards for the audience is in how you tell the story. Unfortunately the story is contained solely within the first twenty minutes of so while the next hour is taken up with Dinesen’s lonesome trek across the deserts and empty wilderness before a final act that is Pythonesque in its randomness, minus the jokes of course.

Or maybe the joke is on me. The précis on the LOVEFilm disc suggested – at least to my imagination – that this was a tale of a traveller facing the wrath of the indigenous people of an uncivilised land he was trespassing on in their eyes. Certainly the odd body- painted native ominously pops up for a quick appearance and there is a minor shoot out after Dinesen finds Corto’s bloodied body, but any threat of the kind outlined above is practically non-existent.

Even if the idea wasn’t to feature any physical altercations or graphic battles, there is a huge opening for the presence of the native to loom over Dinesen’s journey like an ominous black cloud, and the deathly silence to be broken by intimidating noises and such. Instead we get to see Dinesen ride about, fall asleep, drink some water, ride some more, lather, rinse repeat.

I realise this makes me such like a complete luddite but one look through the review archive on this site will show I am no stranger to slow, ambiguous, challenging arthouse cinema. Unfortunately for me, I am one of those people for whom this seems to be a lottery and I am taking a big risk every time I sit down to watch a film like this as the chances of me enjoying or appreciating it vary.

Some films are just too subtle for their own good and I fear this is one of them. From what I have read Lisandro Alonso is renowned among the arthouse brigade for his own brand of minimalist and poetic style of film making. The script – which comes as no surprise was only 20 pages long – was co-written by a poet and playwright Fabian Casas which explains its wandering narrative and reliance on a metaphorical resonance over an emotional connection.

Like a puzzle with the key pieces missing Dinesen’s journey is presumably meant to represent something but there are too many gaps to guess what the complete picture is supposed to look like. Certain things, such as the toy soldier Ingeborg finds which Dinesen later finds dropped in the wilds, seem too easy a reference point for the audience, while the legend of Zuluaga, the missing officer-cum-cross dressing bandit, is either a McGuffin or a richly oblique clue heading towards to the eventual outcome.

Sadly that too is equally baffling as we follow Alice through the looking glass into a final act presents us with something to suggest either a ghost story, a time travel story, a dream or a piece of meta fiction. Again either I am a dunce for not understanding this or Alonso and Casas are playing with us – it’s probably the former sadly.

What made this film somewhat tolerable was the superb photography which captures the landscapes in all their natural glory, the vivid colours of the sky, water and grass sparkling like jewels through the screen. While silence is the main soundtrack we are able to fully appreciate and feel the isolation and loneliness of Dinesen’s trek through the foreboding plains.

Alonso presents this is in a 4:3 picture ratio with rounded edge to recreate antique photographs, but with many shots lingering long after any action has occurred, one did feel they were enduring an interminable slide evening. One shot which was beautifully composed was of Dinesen lying on a rock under a starry night sky, the depth perception, the positioning of his body and the glistening aura of the dark blue nightshade makes for a glorious tableaux.

Viggo Mortensen clearly believed in this film, serving not just as the lead actor but producer, subtitle translator and music composer, joining forces with oddball metal guitarist Buckethead to create an atmospheric acoustic guitar soundtrack. Mortensen is heavily made to look like a 19th century captain, complete with handlebar moustache and rugged facial features while immersing himself into the role, grittily taking on all of the physical trails of Dinesen’s journey.

I really don’t know if this is a case of Emperor’s New Clothes or I am a complete thicko but the highly praised Jauja  was lost on me. Despite boasting some gorgeous imagery, the pacing was too dreary for my liking and whatever meaning there was/may have been behind the story was buried too deeply for my feeble brain to decipher.