Ever have one of those near-tactile dreams that makes sense until you wake up and try to grasp the meaning? Argentine director Lisandro Alonso’s “Jauja” (the title refers to a mythical South American Shangri-La), has that quality. An oneiric parable set in 19th-century Patagonia, the world it depicts shimmers with a crystalline reality, a hard-edged no-man’s-land of sea, desert, and rock. But look closely and it dissolves into mystery.
Expect no answers from Captain Gunnar Dinesen (Viggo Mortensen, far from Middle-earth), a Danish military engineer on loan to the Argentine army as it wages its campaign to exterminate the native population. He has brought with him books, tools, and a vague back story involving a wife who deserted him. He also has his beautiful 15-year-old daughter Ingeborg (Viilbjork Malling Agger), regarded with lascivious interest by Lieutenant Pittaluga (Adrián Fondari), who is first seen joylessly masturbating in a tidal pool. Pittaluga worries Dinesen, as does the renegade General Zuluaga, who has vanished like Joseph Conrad’s Kurtz into the wilderness and is rumored to be leading a band of savages while dressed as a woman.
Dinesen regards these threats warily, but his concerns are misdirected. He fails to heed his daughter when she tells him that she loves the desert, that it “fills” her. So he is astonished when she sneaks away from camp with a young soldier. Against the advice of his Argentine colleagues, Dinesen rides off alone to find her.
In full dress uniform, his sword by his side, a medal on his chest, wielding a pistol and rifle, he soon loses his way. His skills, tools, and regalia are lost or prove useless as he passes into a fatal narrative reminiscent of his namesake Isak Dinesen’s “Seven Gothic Tales,” or of Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges’s story “The South.”
Alonso sustains an atmosphere of otherworldly immanence in a vivid setting, with a style involving long takes with characters posed as if in tableaux vivants. Figures in the distant background balance those in close-up, and then the angle is reversed, addling the point of view. Like Monument Valley in John Ford’s “The Searchers,” the desert, as one character notes, “devours everything.” The few exceptions include a scarf, a compass, and a toy soldier, which take on talismanic significance and show up at key moments, as if clues leading to a revelation. So does a dog, and an old woman in a cave who asks, “What is it that makes a life function, move forward?”
Mysteries, maybe, like in the movies.
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Peter Keough can be reached at email@example.com.