Lisandro Alonso's textured art western "Jauja" won't necessarily educate you about Argentina's 19th century war of expansion against Patagonia's indigenous peoples. But its austere long takes and temporal jags just might lull you into a brainy trance about conquest and survival, as if caught in a staredown between John Ford and Andrei Tarkovsky.
Viggo Mortensen plays Danish captain Gunnar Dinesen, stuck in a seaside military outpost, his attention-starved 14-year-old daughter Ingeborg (Viilbjork Malling Agger) in tow while he oversees an engineering project with the Argentine army.
When Ingeborg bolts with a brooding young officer, Dinesen pursues, "Searchers"-style. And Alonso focuses his mostly stationary, richly grained images — square-framed and round-cornered like old photographs or silent cinema — on a civilized, desperate man's losing battle with a harsh landscape. (The title refers to a fabled city of riches.)
Visually, Alonso and cinematographer Timo Salminen can make any terrain — brush, grass, brackish stream, volcanic rock — pulsate with psychotropic import, as if we're getting an origin story of Earth and humankind. Mortensen, meanwhile, is a forthright physical presence, even if the movie's journey intends to swallow any notion of character in its myth-driven maw. "Jauja" makes one cryptic leap too many at the end, but until then it evocatively confounds.
MPAA rating: None
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.
Playing: Nuart, L.A.