Late into Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja, Viggo Mortensen’s Captain Gunnar Dinesen disappeared into a cave. What happened next, in that unnamed stretch of 19th-century Patagonia, was nothing short of otherworldly. Gunnar’s encounter down the grotto was Jauja’s climax, and it stood as a kind of revelation for film and filmmaker both. The narrative trap door stripped Jauja of its western trappings and lifted the Danish soldier’s search for his daughter across the pampa into the realm of myth before an ellipsis shuttled one across time and space and it all became something else entirely. It also moved Alonso away from the observational, minimalist style of his earlier features toward a more expansive, enigmatic, magical register. More than anything, perhaps, that baffling rupture suggested liberation: it was the sort of moment his previous work––with their intimations of spiritual mysteries and numinous references––had long courted; here it finally detonated, setting the art and its creator free. Where would Alonso travel next?
Nine years since that underground epiphany, along comes Eureka, a film that, for large chunks, seems to emerge from the same hallucinatory terrain Jauja opened up. Like all its predecessors, this unfurls as a literal journey dotted with solitary wanderers either searching for or mourning lost relatives. (“All families disappear eventually,” Gunnar was told down the cave, a line that might as well double as the director’s motto.) Old tropes and motifs notwithstanding, Alonso’s latest is his most ambitious: a tripartite film, Eureka sides not with the white strangers in strange lands that had long peopled Alonso’s oeuvre, but with the native communities facing these invaders. Its scope is ecumenical, its geography massive. In barest terms, Eureka’s designed to sponge something of, and locate parallels between, the experience of Indigenous communities stranded in three markedly different milieus: the Old West; South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation in the present day; and finally the jungles of early-70s Brazil.
Mortensen returns for that first chapter, Eureka’s shortest––a black-and-white western that sees him join forces with a formidable gunslinger (Chiara Mastroianni) in an attempt to rescue his abducted daughter (This configuration of the family unit––a parent desperately searching for their estranged child, or vice-versa––is as cardinal to Alonso’s imagination as it is to fairy tales.) But the monochrome preamble, a zoom-out reveals, is just a film within the film that’s screening in the empty living room of a house on the Pine Ridge Reservation, home to the Oglala Sioux people. It’s the first of Eureka’s pivots; past that juncture, Alonso turns to two Pine Ridge natives, Alaina (Alaina Clifford), a policewoman handling a series of incidents over the course of an interminable night shift, and her young niece Sadie (Sadie Lapointe), a basketball coach looking to flee her increasingly depopulated turf. What her escape amounts to, like Jauja’s climactic rendezvous, is a twist too stupefying to be spoiled here.
Suffice to say that this second shift catapults Sadie and Eureka back in time again, and the final stretch unspools in a remote corner of the Amazon where a small tribe wrestles with a gold rush threatening to upend their lives. What began as a parody of a classic Hollywood western finally morphs into a more cryptic tale not too distant from Kiro Russo’s 2021 El Gran Movimiento, or––farther East––the contemplative rhythms of two of Alonso’s acknowledged exemplars, Tsai Ming-liang and Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Is it any wonder Eureka’s journey across time, space, and genres should feel uneven?
Alonso, who wrote Eureka with Martin Caamaño and Jauja’s co-scribe Fabian Casas, has acknowledged the late Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian as an ur-text (some early exchanges between Mastroianni and Mortensen were cribbed near-verbatim). The novelist’s Hobbesian view of humanity haunts this film: if there’s one similarity Eureka finds among the different Indigenous communities surveyed, it’s our innate propensity for greed––a lesson peddled in the third and final section. It’s by far the least-incisive, especially when compared to the entrancing chapter preceding it. That lopsided nature is Eureka‘s biggest crux. Its second part fuses the observational flair of Alonso’s earliest works (2001’s La Libertad, 2004’s Los Muertos) with the supernatural vein of a reverie à la Jauja, and the alchemy between these two registers makes for a mesmerizing experience.
Edited by Gonzalo del Val and shot by Mauro Herce and Aki Kaurismäki’s regular cinematographer Timo Salminen, Eureka trades in long, uninterrupted shots that function as rooms one can settle into at one’s own pace. Alaina’s late-night car rides are paved with such moments. Even as she bumps into and picks up a few misfits she remains a lonesome drifter, and Alonso dogs her as she roams a no man’s land, wedding his vision of a community on the brink of extinction in a musique concrète of unanswered phone calls, wind rustling through shattered windows, mechanical sounds. It’s here that Eureka is at its most psychotropic––not in the Amazon, but in the dark, caliginous immensity of the Pine Ridge Reservation, where a night shift swells into a kind of seance, and Alaina gradually morphs, like the town she patrols, into a ghost of her own.
Stranded in the Amazon, Eureka loses much of that supernatural mystique––oddly, considering this should stand as the film’s trippiest segment. But for all the hallucinations conjured from the jungle, the script settles with some unimaginative tropes about Indigenous tribes grappling with modernity and its poisonous seeds. Perhaps Eureka suffered something similar in its second chapter, too, when Sadie accused a French woman (Mastroianni again) of being a journalist ready to give the reservation “bad press.” Whether or not Sadie’s right Eureka doesn’t say, but it might be liable of the same charge. All we witness during Alaina’s rides are signs of the community’s inexorable collapse: drug houses, shootings, domestic violence, cars drunkenly swiveling on the road at night. It’s enough to make one wonder if Eureka ultimately succumbs to the same stereotypes it purports to subvert; but such charge, in retrospect, feels ungenerous. Alonso wants to turn those clichés against themselves, and in his own subtle way, he does just that.
As Alaina trudges on and the night unfolds, Eureka slinks from realism to enter a more abstract realm where dialogues take on an enigmatic, playful tone and time slips out of joint. For a film that hinges on an extraordinary metamorphosis, this is its most mesmeric shift: a reservation swelling from a site of violence and destruction into a more ethereal and fantastical milieu, suspended, like Eureka itself, between facts and haunting fiction.
Eureka premiered at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival.