Art-house films are sometimes art, usually they have subtitles, sometimes they’re pretentious, and sometimes they implode the skull with boredom by attempting to go outside the tried-and-true (read fun) laws of cinematic storytelling.
“Jauja” is a South American Western. It’s a little comedic, with a tiny smidgen of drama, a disturbing slaying or two, and a lot of grass for you to literally watch growing.
The main attraction: megastar Viggo Mortensen of “Lord of the Rings.” He’s speaking Danish and Spanish here. So check the subtitles box.
While you’re at it, with all those vistas of grass growing, also check the bored-silly box. And since, apparently, the director said (at the Cannes Film Festival) that it doesn’t matter whether the audience likes it or not—check the pretentious box.
Opening with a much-longer-than-“Star Wars” text, we learn that “Jauja” was the name of the former capital of Spanish Peru. It also means “Unattainable Utopia.”
Down thereabouts in Patagonia, there was a “Conquest of the Desert,” around 1882. The Spaniards and the Danes are warring over some great, green, grassy tracts of land. There’s also a genocide of South American Indians happening.
Lanky, bearded, slightly inept Danish captain Dinesen (Mortensen) is working as an engineer with the Argentine army.
His daughter Ingeborg (Viilbjork Malling Agger) is a 15-year-old Scandinavian blond piece of jailbait, the only female around for miles and miles. She’s sought after by a quietly disgusting, older Spanish soldier. (He asks her father if he can take her to the ball.) She eventually hightails it out of there with a handsome young Spanish soldier. Smart girl.
When Dinesen wakes up one fine morning, he rushes around shouting “Ingeborg!” and then decides to head out into Indian country to find her. As SNL’s Wayne and Garth would say, “And … scene!”
Mostly. To sum up, you’ve got walking through grass, riding a horse through grass, and sitting amid the grass. And there’s a stream. And some boulders. And even a cave with an old woman in it. A few grisly kills. But mostly there’s grass. And it grows. Green. Sometimes yellow.
Does he find his daughter? Can’t tell you. He does find a dog. A large, flea-bitten Irish wolfhound with that itchy, hot patch dogs sometimes get. He follows the dog, hither and thither. Through the grass.
This dog apparently has a twin with that same itchy patch, because it gets nervous, and upset. Why? Because his teenage owner keeps wandering out of present-day Denmark wearing only her underwear and a shirt, and showing up in Argentina, a long time ago, wearing skirts with bustles, and a bonnet. Don’t ask.
Should that be profound? Unfortunately, the only thought that comes to mind is that, since this is 1882, it’s a shame they don’t yet have those white plastic funnels to put on the dog’s head to keep it from scratching.
You could call the film an interesting study in naturalism, all those super-long takes to put you right there in real time. One definitely has the naturalistic experience.
But does one want to be there, in all that grass? The director doesn’t care what you think. We’re here to tell you that you can go to Prospect Park in Brooklyn and stare at the grass for two hours and have more fun due to the Jamaican and African soccer games happening in those parts.
Nobody’s geared to appreciate this kind of cinematic experience these days. Unless perhaps told beforehand: “assume a meditative state.” Interesting to hear Danish-American Viggo’s Danish (and Spanish), though.
Director: Lisandro Alonso
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Diego Roman, Ghita Norby, Mariano Arce
Running Time: 1 hour, 49 minutes
Release date: March 20
2 stars out of 5