A straightforward journey film. Vargas is released from prison, then rides and walks and canoes to deliver a letter to his friend’s wife and to find his own daughter, slaughtering a goat on-camera along the way.

Final moments alive for this goat:

I’d read that Alonso’s first three features were more realistic than the crazy-looking Jauja (also a journey movie where a solitary man looks for his daughter) and was afraid they’d be a drag to watch, but I needn’t have worried. Wish the DVD had looked better, though.

Quintín on the opening:

Alonso went on location with a cameraman and shot a scene – actually, one long take – of the main character holding a knife in his hand, leaving behind the bodies of his dead brothers: a mysterious, intriguing sequence with sophisticated camera movements and a sense of tragedy. The blood theme was there, as were the dead of the title. It was a highly remarkable, virtuoso shot. And a shot that made money. Shown to foundations, producers, sales agents and TV buyers, this homeopathic sample allowed the movie to be finished.

A Danish engineer (Viggo Mortensen) and his teen daughter Ingeborg are in 1880’s Argentina. The locals spread rumors about Zuluaga, a savage desert killer with supernatural powers. Ingeborg runs off with young soldier Corto, Viggo gives chase and finds Corto has been killed. Now he seeks to rescue his daughter from Zuluaga.

Whaaaat that sky:

Sounds like a fine Western, but this is one unusual and beautiful movie. Picture is windowboxed with rounded corners, and the colors are extremely vivid (I think blues or greens were boosted), shot by Kaurismaki’s DP Timo Salminen. The story moves slowly when it moves at all, but the film isn’t its story – it’s more a moving postcard of a barely understood past.

Viggo is injured, his gun and horse stolen, and continues on foot armed with his sword. A dog leads him up a mountain (“what a shit country,” he complains of the rocky ascent) to a cave inhabited by a woman (Ghita Norby, narrator of Babette’s Feast) who may be his daughter many years older.

Cave Woman:

Young Ingeborg wakes up in a massive house in modern-day Denmark, is told by a guy in the yard that her dad’s out, and her dogs are developing nervous rashes because she leaves them alone for so long. Then a shot of sea lions on the rocks of Argentina.

Future Ingeborg:

Viggo also made an Albert Camus movie last year, is clearly in a different headspace these days than during his Lord of the Rings and David Cronenberg eras. Ingeborg’s parents are actors, both on Borgen and The Killing.

Quintin in Cinema Scope:

Needless to say, [the ending] turns the entire film upside down, in an even more radical way than the original last scene from La Libertad, where Misael laughs with the film crew and the whole ethnological dispositif is erased, revealing the entire enterprise as only a film with an actor, as artificial as any other film (perhaps more artificial, in fact). That scene, however, isn’t in the final cut of the film: it was edited out under pressure from Cannes, who requested its removal as a condition to program the film in Un Certain Regard. Thirteen years later, Alonso—whose films have always screened in Cannes, but never in the Competition—was able to retain his intended ending for Jauja, though once again there was pressure from the festival to remove it. Cannes, like many major festivals, prefers to screen films where content and style are clear, distinguishable, uniform, rather than deal with a film where not even the filmmaker knows what exactly is going on. And Alonso is one of those few filmmakers—I can only think of Kiarostami or Monte Hellman as other examples—who understand cinema as the sole medium where there’s no real divide between true and false, dream and reality, film and filmmaking.

I haven’t read all the articles online, but it looks like this was rapturously received by my favorite critics back in March. Won a prize at Cannes, too.

Viggo with Lt. Pittaluga

Alonso:

In the beginning, it was a little bit linear but then after the girl disappeared … the film breaks itself a little bit and starts to have distortions in time, space, and reality. I mean, there’s no way to keep on in the film after he realizes that he’s not going to see the girl again. He has no horse, and he has not even a hat to protect him from the sun. He’s a man in a desert, and he loses all that he has, his daughter.

A. Martin:

Ingeborg speaks of her desire to own a dog – one that will follow her everywhere, that will live only for her. And what does Dinesen become, 30 minutes into the film, but precisely that, abandoning his mission in a heartbeat and blindly following her every trace … Alonso takes Jauja more in the direction of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s films, or Miguel Gomes’s celebrated Tabu – a type of cinema in which the materiality of landscapes and political histories is melded with the magical, transformative elements of fairytale and myth.

B. Ebiri: “Alonso has a lot on his mind, but he’s interested in casting a spell more than sending a message, in texture, sound, and image more than narrative.”

Alonso again:

We composed the film in 1.85:1, which is more panoramic, a little bit more modern. But then, when I asked for the transfer from the lab, I just asked them to give me a full frame, and I started editing in 4:3 … I was thinking that if I go with a more ’scope film, people maybe would get the wrong idea about Viggo, the swords, and the horse, and they’ll look more for action. Is he going to kill the Indians? And that is not the film. So if I put it in an old frame, they will start seeing the film another way, not waiting for more action. It’s a better perspective to have.

Funny, that’s the opposite of what Serra did with Story of My Death, shooting 4:3 then reframing in ‘scope.

Zuluaga in Jauja:

Zuluaga in Letter for Serra:

Alonso is one of Cinema Scope’s 50 Under 50 – a quest I’d put on the back burner, then considered abandoning after suffering through Story of My Death this summer. Serra came to mind while watching Jauja, and probably not coincidentally, the two filmmakers know each other, and I’ve found an hour-long 2008 discussion between the two of them. Serra seems more lively and interesting than his films do. Alonso on the difficulty of creating a film: “Perhaps the scene in question was easy to film … the difficult thing is putting one shot after another and adding sound and creating an atmosphere around it.” Serra is focused on Honor de Cavalleria, Alonso on his “Lonely Men Trilogy” of La Libertad, Los Muertos and Liverpool. I abandoned the interview after a half hour and watched something else: there was a 2011 project called Correspondences where filmmakers made video “letters” to each other, and Alonso and Serra participated. Skipping Serra’s section for now because it’s two and a half hours long.

Letter for Serra (2011)

Long takes, just a few shots in 20+ minutes. Among tall grasses and twisted trees, we follow a nervous rifleman taking a shot in the woods. Then an axe man walking with his dogs. We watch the dogs in the woods, then a narrator takes out some notes and tells the story of the axe man Zuluaga – a backstory for Jauja, it would seem.