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Lisandro Alonso in LA

Lisandro Alonso’s Eureka (2023)

From Thursday through Sunday, Lisandro Alonso will be in Los Angeles, where the American Cinematheque will host the city’s first in-person retrospective, which includes the LA premiere of Eureka (2023). The series opens with Jauja (2014), the film that signaled a turn in the Argentine director’s oeuvre. Jauja was Alonso’s first period piece and the first to star a professional actor, Viggo Mortensen, who will take part in Thursday’s Q&A with Alonso.

Filmmaker James Benning (Ten Skies, RR) will moderate the Q&A that follows Saturday’s screening of La libertad (2001). Alonso’s debut feature “heralded a current of observational cinema featuring nonprofessionals, often living in humble circumstances and remote areas, going about their business in narratively minimal but formally rigorous films,” wrote Nicholas Elliott when he spoke with the director for BOMB Magazine in 2015. “While the viewer was always rewarded for sticking with Alonso’s leisurely shots, deliberate pace, and lack of dialogue, his imitators have been the curse of twenty-first century festival-goers, as will happen when an artist’s startling new contribution is mistaken for a universally applicable recipe.”

Freshly graduated from the Universidad del Cine in Buenos Aires, Alonso was twenty-five when he spent nine days and not much money filming a woodcutter, Misael (Misael Saavedra), marking trees, cutting them down, and loading them onto trucks in the pampas. “Pulsating techno accompanies the film’s opening title sequence while a dance track blaring from the woodcutter’s radio declares, ‘Un pocito mas duro,’” wrote Slant’s Ed Gonzalez in 2001. “Alonso’s use of silence is remarkably contemplative while his use of light and shadow serves to complement the woodcutter’s serene relationship to nature. Lightning strikes as the woodcutter munches on an armadillo, staring directly at us as if daring us to question or challenge the integrity of his way of life.”

Writing for Reverse Shot in 2010, Benjamin Mercer suggested that Los muertos (2004) is “the most radical of Alonso’s features because of the nature of what we don’t know about the protagonist: namely, whether or not he is a serial killer.” Ex-con Vargas (Argentino Vargas) may or may not have killed his brothers a couple of decades ago. Heading along a river running through dense forest to reunite with his daughter and grandkids, Vargas might or might not slay a friendly couple along the way.

“Throughout Los muertos,” wrote artist and filmmaker Deborah Stratman (Last Things) for the Notebook last fall, “there is a towering muteness that registers as lament. Muteness, not silence. Because there are sounds, and they are visceral. A fish torn from its skin, fruit from its rind, honeycomb from its hive, internal organs from a cavity. A truck creaks and groans as it travels over rutted gravel. Knuckles crack. A bedframe squeaks under fucking bodies. Frogs and insects form a dense sonic thicket, complex and humid. The sounds bear testimony to a litany of exchange, as fecund and violent as they are quotidian.”

Essayist (Slow Writing) and filmmaker (Los Angeles Plays Itself) Thom Andersen will moderate Sunday’s Q&A. Running sixty-three minutes, Fantasma (2006) has been described as something of an étude between features. Argentino Vargas arrives at the Teatro San Martín in Buenos Aires for the premiere of Los muertos, and La libertad’s Misael Saavedra makes a brief appearance as well.

“The setup is an ingenious way to bring nature to the city, actors to their affect, and audiences to their subjective screens,” wrote Jay Kuehner for Parallax View in 2009. “And the result inevitably reminds one of Tati and Tsai Ming-liang, but Alonso’s bewitching patience and controlled mise-en-scène are again employed without parallel. Not least, one gets an unofficial tour of the crumbling modernist multiplex, which Fantasma treats with utmost fidelity. Take my word for it, the Teatro San Martín, with its maze of cinemas and faded grand stairways, cool upholstery and chipped bathroom tile, is an intrinsically surreal experience.”

In Liverpool (2008), a merchant seaman, Farrel (Juan Fernández), requests permission to go ashore when his cargo ship pulls into Ushuaia, Argentina’s southernmost city. From there, he drinks and journeys to his hometown, where he finds his mother living with his daughter, Analia (Giselle Irrazabal). For MUBI’s Daniel Kasman, Liverpool conjures “that sense in silent movies that you are seeing a rich totality, a true three-dimensional moment, in every shot.”

“Like people in a Jacques Tourneur ghost story, Alonso’s creatures seem to exist in separate planes that overlap without quite connecting, a sense of disconnection which here extends from loner to community,” wrote Fernando F. Croce for Slant in 2009. “Alonso ultimately sees tenuous hope in the man’s attempts to communicate with his daughter, even if they take the form of a rusty memento passed on to somebody who cannot grasp its meaning. Formalist yet visceral, monosyllabic yet eloquent, Liverpool ponders the lure and absurdity of nests in a world of unending, faraway ports.”

When a 2009 retrospective of Alonso’s work toured the U.S., several assessments of the oeuvre up to that point were written, and the most essential of these is James Quandt’s for Artforum. “More Bresson than Boetticher (despite surprising affinities with the latter), Alonso’s films observe their battened protagonists with intent detachment,” wrote Quandt. “The men’s unyielding features and solitary, taciturn ways—they all ‘ride lonesome’—register less as enigmatic, the way the neutrality of Bresson’s ‘models’ serves an aura of immanence and mystery, than as ramparts against the world. Precarious, inward, lost even to themselves, Alonso’s men are separated, estranged, or sundered from their families.”

Five years passed before Jauja premiered at Cannes in the Un Certain Regard program and won the FIPRESCI Prize. “Shot in Northern Patagonia and set in the late nineteenth century, Jauja quickly sketches a place and time amid the grand, genocidal Conquest of the Desert,” wrote Leo Goldsmith at Reverse Shot. Danish Captain Gunnar Dinesen (Mortensen) has some ill-defined business to see to with the Argentine army, and he’s brought along his fifteen-year-old daughter, Ingeborg (Viilbjørk Malling Agger). When she runs off with a soldier, Dinesen, ignoring every warning, sets out to find her.

Jauja follows “a logic that feels wholly new to Alonso’s cinema,” wrote Goldsmith. “Here, his style makes room for more elements, including a Hollywood actor, period costuming, a little broad comedy, and even intimations of the supernatural.” For Vulture’s Bilge Ebiri, Jauja is “a rapturously bizarre movie that resists knowledge. That’s its secret, intoxicating power; the less you understand, the more mesmerized you are.”

Mortensen and Malling Agger are father and child again in the first section of Eureka. “In impeccable academy-ratio black-and-white with rounded edges that looks startlingly close to classics like 1946’s My Darling Clementine, which it seems to nod to, Alonso offers a revisionist western of badass violence,” wrote Filmmaker’s Vadim Rizov when he interviewed Alonso last year.

A transition that every reviewer loves and only a few spoil brings us to present-day South Dakota, where a police officer, Alaina (Alaina Clifford), patrols the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. “This is the film’s most compelling section,” wrote Rizov, shot in color “with a quasi-Lynchian array of visuals locating the uncanny in the mundane, among them rooms full of meticulously coordinated garbage and the police car’s red-and-blue flashing sirens imposing themselves on each scene with stroboscopic intensity.”

A CGI-generated stork takes us to the third section, which is set in the jungles of Brazil in the 1970s. “A few characters, or the actors playing them, recur in each section, though not necessarily with the same name, or even in human form,” writes Keith Uhlich at Slant. “And as he demonstrated in his languorous, mesmeric Liverpool, Alonso has a talent for imbuing certain objects (a keychain in the earlier film, a bird feather and a pocketknife here) with a talismanic power that suggests there’s much more going on than meets the eye.” Introducing an interview with Alonso in Cinema Scope, Mark Peranson wrote that Eureka raises questions such as “are the life of Indigenous peoples better or worse in Western society? Today or in the past? How long is too long to hold a shot, or is time just a construct?”

“It can be tempting to label risky, ambiguous, elongated works ‘major,’” writes Reverse Shot coeditor Jeff Reichert, “and, while Eureka may very well be that, I’m ultimately more interested in how it furthers an ongoing filmmaking project, one that favors the primal pull of embodied imagery over dialogue and obvious psychological markers. Here, Alonso seems similarly emboldened to abandon traditional notions of classical narrative harmony in favor of an artwork that bends towards a different kind of completeness. He has found it.”

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