In Lisandro Alonso’s beautifully shot, minimalist Jauja, a desert in 19th century Patagonia sparks an enigmatic quest into the meaning of life and cinema.
The Red Desertby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
A strange and sometimes beautiful film, Jauja may entrance or irritate. Its director, Argentinian Lisandro Alonso, has a reputation for minimalist and inconclusive filmmaking. His previous work – La Libertad, Los Muertos, Fantasma – used non-professional actors. Jauja takes production values to another level. It’s his first film to use an internationally acclaimed actor – Viggo Mortensen. It has a screenplay – although this is in Spanish, Danish and French, Alonso’s use of dialogue is still minimal – by Argentinian poet and novelist Fabian Casas. The breathtaking cinematography is by Aki Kaurismaki’s longtime cameraman Timo Salminen.
Also in contrast to Alonso’s preceding films, Jauja is a period drama. It’s set in 1882 in Patagonia, in a remote desert outpost where white military colonists are attempting to impose some kind of engineering defences on the vast unyielding landscape and to exterminate the indigenous peoples, whom they disdain as “coconut-heads”. The film is shot in an aspect ratio that projects it as small screen and with rounded corners, which together with the way it’s lit, gives it the feel of an early photograph. Jauja is the name of Inca settlement that was the gold-laden first capital of Peru. It now implies a mythical Eldorado, a land of plenty, and titles at the start of the film set the atmosphere by telling us that many seek it, but get lost on the way.
Mortensen is Dinesen, a Danish engineer working with the Argentinian army. He’s accompanied by his 15-year-old daughter Ingeborg (Viilbjørk Malling Agger). Intent on guarding her virginity while they live in a tented camp among soldiers, he is disconcerted by the emotions the landscape arouses in her and by the emotions she arouses in the soldiers. One night she runs away with a young soldier (Misael Saavedra, the woodcutter from La Libertad). What follows and takes up most of the film is Dinesen’s attempt to find her, as he treks across the hot, endless pampas in way that references The Searcher. Out there somewhere, though we never see him, is Colonel Zuluaga, an army renegade who has gone native, dressing as a woman and leading indigenous people in looting the colonists.
Sticking out like a sore thumb in his army uniform, almost in the same way as one of the glaringly red-trousered soldiers, dressed in the wrong colours in a landscape that is alien to him – or he to it – Dinesen becomes increasingly confused and dishevelled. He loses his horse, his gun and his hat to a stealthy attack. Comically, all we see is a brown hand reaching in from a corner of the screen. Reduced now to walking, he stumbles over an increasingly harsh terrain, scaling pyramids of rocks, until he meets a large dog, who leads him to an old woman (Ghita Norby) in a cave, and who their conversation reveals may or may not be his daughter or maybe only a hallucination.
And here the film’s dreamlike atmosphere takes on a mythical dimension as it cuts to the present day, where the dog and the continuing motif of a toy tin soldier that fascinated Ingeborg in remote Patagonia link us to Inge (played again by the actress who was Ingeborg), a contemporary teenager living in a European castle. And then again the tin soldier links these two worlds in time and space, taking us back to 19th century Argentina in the closing shots.
Made up of long, lingeringly held, apparently meandering shots and almost entirely with a soundtrack of natural sounds, Jauja’s slow, deliberate pace means it requires a kind of sustained concentration and could make it either a profound experience or an ordeal. Implicitly, it examines reality and illusion, civilisation and barbarism, the meaning of existence and nature of cinema itself. Its period context alludes to important elements of Argentinia’s literature and colonial history, which would be familiar in the country but opaque to most audiences outside. But even so the film’s core is universal and metaphysical. “What makes a life function?” the old woman’s voiceover asks. And she answers: “I don’t know.” In Alonso’s films, the audience must decide for itself what it has seen.
Jauja is released on 10th April 2015 in the UK