There is something awfully liberating in a filmmaker unwilling to totally understand the breadth of what he or she has created—willing instead to join the audience for a bit in exploring the alien reaches of what’s contained on screen. Filmmaking is treacherous terrain, after all: an audience puts its trust in both the film and the people behind the film to lead one logically through space-time—to be clear about where to look, and when, and for how long, so that eventually the film itself is an inhabited reality, the edges of which, between our reality and that of what we’re watching, grow blurrier by the minute. But what if a director loses some of that control, or better yet, offers us the compass willingly? Gives us some agency? Shit can get weird.
In his latest feature, the breathtaking Jauja, Argentinian director Lisandro Alonso demonstrates that he is the rare filmmaker who trusts his audience enough to winnow his films down to the bone. As he’s admitted, even he doesn’t know what’s really going on in this film. Here is a new stretch of undiscovered country, he asserts—let’s explore it together. And so, as he has done in the past, especially with his “Lonely Man Trilogy” (La libertad, Los muertos and Liverpool), Alonso patiently watches as a man, physically and psychologically alone, traverses a vaguely apocalyptic landscape, heading further and further into the middle of nowhere. His journey is as absurd as it is directionless, and before long, Alonso’s abandoned all pretense of this guy ever finding what he’s looking for, let alone a relief to the ever-building psychosis that must be accompanying him as he digs in his heels and ventures further into the unknown.
This time around, that man is Gunnar Dinesen (Viggo Mortensen), an engineer working for the Danish military, accompanying the Argentinian army as they rid the Patagonian desert of all the indigenous, so-called “coconut heads.” When, in the film’s opening minutes, Dinesen asks fellow traveler Colonel Pittaluga (Adrián Fondari) why the native people are referred to in such an odd way, Pittaluga seems annoyed by the question, concerned only with their eradication. Granted, Pittaluga has recently finished masturbating, so he’s probably not ready to confront some difficult questions about race and colonization just yet. Still, his reaction is as clear as anything in Jauja will ever be: insulted at worst, and uninterested at best, in having to explain anything about what’s going on.
Pittaluga carries a similar attitude about concealing his self-pleasure, coincidentally finishing up right before Dinesen strolls into frame. Though the engineer is far in the distance, he suddenly and very jarringly destroys all semblance of privacy we assumed Pittaluga was counting on. Which is funny, because the pool in which Pittaluga was polishing his little soldier rests in the middle of a vastly open stretch of Patagonian coast, and one can assume that at any point any member of the army, or of Dinesen’s crew, or even Dinesen’s daughter Ingeborg (Viilbjørk Malling Agger) could stumble upon something best left imagined more than seen. Yet, Alonso is careful with what he provides the audience—we never see much of an army, only catch a glimpse of the “coconut heads,” never get to indulge in the Governor’s Ball that everyone’s talking about—and in that he seems to find endless joy in toying with ideas of obfuscation and clarity, with notions of what we deserve to see and what we should be wary about planting in our heads, unable to unsee. If anything, Jauja is about film as symbol—about movies as ways to represent both a reality we otherwise would have no access to, and a feeling we can’t quite manifest.
Mortensen’s presence alone is enough to rip down all illusions about the reality of what we’re watching. A certifiable movie star, Mortensen both makes Jauja Alonso’s most accessible and high-profile film to date, and makes, in some sort of meta-textual gesture, the whole idea of the film being embraced by a wider audience a futile thing to think about. Because it won’t be—embraced by the masses that is: this is a movie about a laconic military man who, very quietly, decides to search for his missing daughter when she disappears in the middle of the night. And that’s it. For the most part, little happens, and even littler is explained: we assume she runs away to be with young soldier Angel Milkibar (Esteban Bigliardi), and we assume that Dinesen chases after her alone because he doesn’t want to get all the other sex-starved, openly masturbating soldiers involved, but anything more than that is only intuited. In fact, that this film takes place in Patagonia during the late 1800s is more apocryphal than anything, reasonable aspects of plot pulled from other sources but never once mentioned in the film itself. In all, what Alonso seems most fascinated with isn’t sense or narrative continuity, but a kind of dream-logic, attempting to surpass the many mental blocks your brain will put up as the film gives up on geography, or identity, or even time itself, instead tapping into the more visceral pleasures of what it means to sit in front of a screen and point your head at it and just totally let go.
Which is perhaps reading too much into it; Alonso would probably become impatient with any analysis that gets between a viewer and the viewed, that puts up walls of explanation where there really doesn’t need to be any. But consider how Alonso shoots in, as Amanda Schurr puts it, an “old-timey 4:3 aspect ratio, complete with the rounded corners akin to a still camera,” artificially cloistering our view while making it very obvious that what’s happening is totally artificial in the first place. For all of the exquisite natural beauty Alonso captures, there persists an overwhelming feeling of it all being rigorously controlled.
But oh that beauty. Jauja’s greatest joy is in its languorous pace, allowing us to search every single gorgeous frame for life and intricacy and even hope, inevitably wondering when Dinesen will find his daughter, and then at some point just sort of knowing he won’t. Towards the end of the film, the audience is asked via voiceover, “What is it that makes a life function and move forward?” To which Dinesen answers, out loud, “I don’t know.” And then he keeps walking, unsure if he’s found what he’s looking for or not. There is much that Alonso could be asking us in that moment—more than just what keeps us waking up every morning—yet the question seems to also have no precedent, no deeper meaning besides what is plainly before us: Why would a man keep walking into the uncharted desert, toward his certain doom? And then: Why would the movie, in its final 10 minutes, completely change into a different movie?
Because that happens, whatever it means. In Jauja, symbols are only themselves, pointing only to themselves—a toy soldier, a colony of sea lions, the pock-marked crag of earth over which Dinesen hilariously trips as he crosses it, the passage of time: all of this Alonso grabs hold of, preserving it on celluloid in an attempt to convey its power. And so, there’s something deeply buried within this film that begs us to move forward; be it a primal responsibility for these images or, more simply, Mortensen’s always-engaging ability to convey so much with so little, it’s anyone’s guess. That the director is here, guessing alongside us, makes the film truly something special.
Director: Lisandro Alonso
Writers: Fabian Casas, Lisandro Alonso
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Adrián Fondari, Esteban Bigliardi, Viilbjørk Malling Agger
Release Date: March 20, 2015
Dom Sinacola is Assistant Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. Since he grew up in the Detroit area, it is required by law that his favorite movie is Robocop. You can follow him on Twitter.