I’ve now seen Lisandro Alonso’s captivating, unearthly Jauja four times, and I don’t think I’m any closer to telling you what it’s all about; the more I see it, the more puzzled I am. Alonso likes to traffic in the oblique — in the blank, mysterious spaces between the ostensible realities onscreen. That sounds like a lot of hooey, but watching Jauja, which is certainly one of the best films of the year, I never once doubted that I was in the hands of a master filmmaker. For all its seeming austerity, the film pulls you along with incredible force — not unlike the way it pulls its lonely protagonist, played by Viggo Mortensen, along on his quixotic, dreamlike journey.
Mortensen is onscreen by himself for much of Jauja — along with an ever-present, seemingly endless horizon, captured beautifully by Finnish cinematographer Timo Salminen’s often hauntingly still camera. Our protagonist is a Danish engineer named Dinesen, working with the Argentine army in the late 19th century in a remote, wind- and sea-swept corner of Patagonia. When his 15-year-old daughter (Villbjork Mallin Agger) runs off with a young soldier, Dinesen goes off after them. His journey is one of gradual transformation, but the biggest change happens right at the beginning: Though he’s tried to keep his distance from the rough, menacing soldiers around him (men who talk casually of exterminating natives they call “coconut-heads”), Dinesen trades his civilian clothes for an officer’s uniform before he sets off into the desert, giving up his telescope and timepiece for a gun and a sabre. Violence is always hovering on the edges of the frame — the second shot in the film is of a pair of soldiers’ hands, covered in blood, casually scraping away at a tiny piece of meat, an image at once delicate and brutal. Is this violence senseless, or is it an unfortunate, necessary civilizing force? The film doesn’t dare to answer this question, though it certainly asks it.
That’s just one of many questions it asks, however. As Dinesen’s journey becomes ever more futile, and the landscape around him ever more barren and unreal, Jauja seems to adopt and shed meanings. We know this man will never “find” his daughter in the traditional sense — this isn’t The Searchers, though at times John Ford’s meditations on society and savagery seem to be an influence — and the ways in which different elements recur throughout make it clear that we’re watching a symbolic journey more than anything else. Small objects and items gather totemic significance. A mysterious deserter — a brilliant soldier named Zuluaga who has either disappeared, or gone native — is often mentioned but never quite seen, though at times we suspect he may be lurking right outside the frame. And what about Jauja itself, which an opening title tells us is the name of “a fabled city of richness and happiness,” about which “the only thing that is known for certain is that all who tried to find this earthly paradise got lost on the way”? Our hero certainly gets lost, but was he looking for richness and happiness, or just trying to save his daughter? Does it matter?
The little symbols and hints that Alonso drops along the way — guiding fables, parallel myths, objects of telling significance — are tantalizingly incomplete. They flirt with meaning, but they secretly dissemble and distract. Alonso has a lot on his mind, but he’s interested in casting a spell more than sending a message, in texture, sound, and image more than narrative. As he proceeds through this dreamscape, Dinesen watches his reflection shimmer in pools of water; he looks up at a night sky of supernatural beauty; the ground around him becomes more volcanic. Meanwhile, a third act encounter in a cave sends the film further into the realm of the surreal — Rip Van Winkle by way of David Lynch — and the final scenes are a what-the-fuck of epic proportions, suggesting both rebirth and abject futility. Jauja is a rapturously bizarre movie that resists knowledge. That’s its secret, intoxicating power; the less you understand, the more mesmerized you are.