A Star Turns Away In Jauja

The close-up, ostensibly one of a filmmaker's most valuable tools, is now so overused it's practically meaningless. Thanks to TV—and our habit of watching big-screen movies on increasingly smaller ones—we're now so used to seeing a shot of one actor talking, followed by a shot of another responding, ad nauseam, that this volley of visual dullness barely registers anymore.

But sometimes, particularly in the presence of an actor whose face is worth watching, a long or medium shot is a filmmaker's best ally: In Argentinian director Lisandro Alonso's splendid, quietly passionate dream-western Jauja, we want to creep closer to the film's star and enigmatic center, Viggo Mortensen, as a Danish military engineer overseeing the establishment of a “promised land” for European settlers, somewhere on the coast of Patagonia in the 19th century. Mortensen has the kind of face—both chiseled and mobile, with eyes that hold as many secrets as they spill—that's made for close-ups. But Alonso and his cinematographer Timo Salminen, by refusing to zero-in on that fantastic face, give us more by showing us less. Our attention is more deliberately focused on Mortensen's place in the landscape and in the way his soul inhabits his body, clad in a stiff soldier's uniform. Now and again, we do get to look squarely at his face—Alonso wouldn't be so cruel as to deprive us of that entirely. But by holding the camera back, he intensifies both Mortensen's performance and the visual potency of the movie around him. There's so much to take in here that at times I almost felt as if I were absorbing it through my skin.

The story is simple enough to sum up, but it winds its way into a realm that isn't so easy to explain: Mortensen's Gunnar Dinesen is stationed in a strange and threatening land still populated by its native inhabitants, whom his fellow soldiers refer to as “coconut heads.” He's brought with him his pretty, blond 15-year-old daughter, Ingeborg (Viilbjørk Malling Agger): In the picture's deceptively serene opening sequence, she asks him if she can have a dog. We can see her face, youthfully open yet vaguely troubled, but not his. He tells her she can have a dog when they return home, but it's almost immediately clear that “home” means something different to each of them. Later, after we've had a clearer look at the strange and harshly glorious landscape around them—a moonscape of rusty-looking, moss-covered rocks and prickly bunches of grass that grow in all directions—we understand what she means when she tells him, “I like the desert. I love how it fills me.”

There's also, it turns out, a boy: A young soldier has captivated her. It doesn't occur to Dinesen to think of the boy as a threat. He's more concerned that his daughter might fall prey to the lascivious attentions of an older lieutenant (Adrian Fondari). And so when Ingeborg and the young soldier run off, Dinesen, both surprised and heartsick, sets out to find her. His search puts him directly in the path of a local legend, Zuluaga, a former general gone mad who's now a ruthless killer. It also leads him to a mystical dog, a sort of long-legged, wire-haired wolfhound, who points the way toward answers to questions he has never quite asked.

Alonso is an arthouse favorite, a director who's made a small handful of quiet, visually thoughtful features over the past 15 years. Jauja has the potential to bring him to a larger audience, thanks in part to Mortensen, a performer who's both a born movie star and an actor who makes thoughtful, interesting choices in terms of film roles. (He's also superb in David Oelhoffen's soon-to-be-released Far From Men, as a French teacher in a small Algerian village during the Algerian War.) But even beyond its charismatic star, Jauja is captivating, not least because of Alonso's ability to capture the cruel beauty of the natural landscape—you can almost see the earth itself refusing to accept European imperialism blithely.

In the aftermath of a Zuluaga rampage, a human body spurts Wild Bunch-colored blood, a particularly vivid shade of movie vermillion. In a quieter scene, Mortensen's Dinesen rests on a rock, the nighttime sky and all its stars spread around him. He can travel no farther for the day; it's time to sleep. From his pocket, he takes a small reminder of his daughter, a toy soldier that he found in the dust—apparently, she dropped it while on her journey. As he holds it up against the sky, the stars behind give way to a murky, but still extraordinarily beautiful, sea of clouds. He's trying to solve a mystery by focusing on one small part of it. Meanwhile, the bigger mystery unfolds in the background, and that one is unending.

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