As I sit in between armrests that say “Werner Herzog” and “Klaus Kinski,” I think about how unfortunate it is that I have grown up in the Seattle area and have never stepped foot into Northwest Film Forum. I walk past it nearly every day on my way to and from campus, but I have never even typed their organization into a search engine to find out more about them.
So, it is fitting that I should find myself at a new place, watching a film that I normally would not gravitate toward.
“Jauja” is a worldly film in a lot of senses. Directed by Argentine filmmaker Lisandro Alonso, the film is set in 19th century Patagonia during the Conquest of the Desert. The main character, Captain Gunnar Dinesen (Viggo Mortensen) is a Dane working as an engineer for the Argentine army, with his 15-year-old daughter Ingeborg, a.k.a. Inge (Viilbjørk Malling Agger), in tow.
As Inge is the only girl—and a beautiful girl, at that—in this testosterone-filled environment, the men are all pining after her. But a young soldier named Corto steals her heart, and one night the two of them run away to elope.
Dinesen then goes in search for his runaway daughter, which is where the title of the film comes into play. “Jauja” is a mythical city of riches and happiness. Many people went on arduous adventures in attempts to find this place.
And while Dinesen is not specifically in search of Jauja itself, it is the sort of place that Mortensen’s character is on an expedition to find when his daughter goes missing.
Of course, everyone who has ever gone out in search of Jauja has ended up getting lost in their journey, much like Dinesen eventually does.
Though Mortensen is typically known for playing either the heroic figure or the villain—as you may recall, he portrayed Aragorn in “Lord of the Rings”—this role was very different from either of those characters.
In “Jauja,” Mortensen portrays a lovingly protective and worried father. He is not incredibly heroic in any way, nor is he a villain. In fact, as I was watching the film, I kept thinking that if my own dad and I were in that time period and situation, he would probably trek across the desert to find me, too.
There is not a lot of dialogue in “Jauja,” though that is compensated by the physical actions of the characters and the breathtaking cinematography. The movie is unbelievably picturesque. And though the film is set in the middle of the desert, the scenery was so expertly captured that it just about made me want to go get lost in the warm, dry heat of the desert sun.
Though the movie was a bit slow at times, whenever I grew disinterested in the lack of dialogue, the film pulled me in again with a new event, animal, or person who piqued my interest.
The film also held my attention with its carefully-crafted details. As a writer, I love symbols and motifs, so I could not help but notice that images which appear in the beginning (such as dogs, a symbol representing what the characters want to find, and a compass, a symbol representing the attempts to find it) are reintroduced in the end.
And, as an avid horseback rider and animal lover, I must also point out some flaws. While Mortensen clearly knows how to ride a horse, he does not seem to know how to lead a horse. And, at some point, he ends up leaving his horse behind to continue his expedition on foot.
Still, these are just small details in what is ultimately a mesmerizing metaphysical journey toward a mythical land. And though there are many movies about runaway lovebirds, I have never seen a movie depicting it quite like “Jauja.”
“Jauja” is running at Northwest Film Forum April 17-23.