'Land of Plenty' ('Jauja'): Cannes Review

'Jauja,' Lisandro Alonso (Un Certain Regard)
Courtesy of Festival De Cannes

Viggo Mortensen stars in this drama about a father and daughter who travel from Denmark to an unknown desert. It’s the first film from Argentine auteur Alonso since Liverpool, which screened in Directors’ Fortnight in 2008. (Sales: NDM)

Cult director Lisandro Alonso widens his scope in a delicate and enigmatic reflection on the legacy of European imperialism.

Viggo Mortensen searches for his runaway daughter in the wilds of South America.

Argentine director Lisandro Alonso has built a cult following around a handful of elegant, minimalist films made for meditative minds. In comparison to his earlier work, the most surprising thing about Jauja (Land of Plenty) is its relative verbosity and the traces of actual narrative in the screenplay written by poet and journalist Fabian Casas. Another prime attraction is actor Viggo Mortensen in the role of a dizzy 19th century army captain whose search for his missing daughter in the wilds of South America turns into a long existential journey.

Whether these elements will suffice to enlarge the director’s circle of admirers is doubtful, though, because it remains an extremely enigmatic work that dangles possible meanings before viewers, who are forced to put their thinking caps on. While all audiences will find it a head-scratcher, some will leave the theater more frustrated than others. Its reception in Cannes’ Certain Regard was ecstatic, and the long list of co-producing countries guarantees the film will travel.

Alonso is such an original director that he doesn’t offer many reference points or footholds going in to films like Freedom, Los muertos and Liverpool. Here the title Jauja refers to an Incan settlement that became the capital of Peru, founded by Pizarro and the gold-obsessed Spanish conquistadores. It suggests a mythic El Dorado that Europeans lusted after.

The characters in the main body of the film are dressed in generic historical costumes that look vaguely 19th century. Two Spanish-speaking officers are camped out on a marshy seashore along with the Danish Capt. Dinesen (Mortensen) and his lovely 15-year-old daughter Ingeborg (Viilbjork Mallin Agger). When a brutish lieutenant makes eyes at her after masturbating in a pool of water, Dinesen becomes alarmed. There is little need to worry, however, because Inge soon runs off with a handsome young soldier, and the good captain takes off on his own to find her, against everyone’s advice.

One of the dangers lurking out there is the legendary Zuluaga, a courageous officer and leader of men gone wild. This brings to mind Mr. Kurtz from Heart of Darkness or, to be more location-specific, Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God. Both figures relate to colonialism, imperialism, barbarism vs. civilization. Aguirre, one will recall, also brought his pretty teenage daughter along on a trek through the jungle, to disastrous effect.

Certainly the Europeans have little to recommend them, especially after the lieutenant intimates that the army’s aim is to exterminate the locals. Dinesen’s goal, on the contrary, is to go home to Europe, but Inge’s disappearance scotches that. Mortensen turns the captain into a clumsy, huffing and puffing clown in his fine double-breasted uniform, sword and rifle, who has trouble mounting a horse. Though mostly a risible character, he’s partially redeemed by his burning love for his daughter that keeps him searching for the rest of the film. His brushes with the mysterious Zuluaga are fleeting but deadly, marked by ancient looking totems and barbaric savagery.  

Just when the sight of the captain stumbling through nature begins to get tiresome, the film’s final half hour changes register completely. Suddenly the viewer enters a sort of ghost story/time-warp as Dinesen, his strength failing, follows a mysterious dog to a strange encounter in a very shamanic space. The last sequence takes the esoterism one step farther, in a beautiful ending that seems to link European wealth to those long-ago events in Latin America.   

Finnish D.P. Timo Salminen, who has shot several of Aki Kaurismaki’s films, works gamely with the eccentric choice of a square frame with rounded corners, which gives his finely composed long shots and stripped-down images a deliberately old-fashioned look. Mortensen also gets co-producer and music credit for a couple of fine modern pieces saved for the end of the film.

Production companies: 4L, Perceval Pictures, Les Films du Worso, Kamoli Films, Fortuan Films, Massive, Mantarraya, Wanka, The Match Factory
Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Viilbjork Mallin Agger, Chita Norby, Adrian Fondari, esteban Bigliardi, Diego Roman, Mariano Arce, Misael Saavedra, Gabriel Marquez, Brian Patterson
Director: Lisandro Alonso
Screenwriter: Fabian Casas
Producers: Ilse Hughan, Sylvie Pialat, Jaime Romandia, Andy Kleinman, Viggo Mortensen, Helle Ulsteen, Michael Weber
Director of photography: Timo Salminen
Production designer: Sebastian Roses
Costume designer: Gabriela Aurora Fernandez

Editors: Natalia Lopez, Gonzalo Del Val
Music: Viggo Mortensen, Buckethead
Sales: NDM
No rating, 108 minutes.