By Tom Platt. “The Ancient Ones said that Jauja was a mythological land of abundance and happiness. The only thing that is known for certain is that all who tried to find this earthly paradise got lost along the way.”
That’s certainly a foreboding way to begin a movie, and one can’t shake the feeling that it’s an omen meant to settle nervously in the back of our minds. And as the film cuts to a highly saturated static of a young girl sitting with what appears to be her father — framed within an oddly familiar 4:3 aspect ratio with softly rounded edges — we feel a peculiar sense of home in this strange family polaroid (or a home movie frame, depending on your age), set amongst the eerie and endless Patagonia landscape.
Juaja, the newest film from Argentinian director Lisandro Alonso (Los Muertos, Liverpool), stars Viggo Mortensen as Gunnar Dinesen, a Danish army captain who searches for his missing daughter (Viilbjørk Malling Agger) in the endlessness of Patagonia. While the audience will feel immersed in every hypnotic second of this 109 minute journey, it’s hard to leave the theater without actively forming opinions on this quiet epic.
The film places itself in 1882 during the extremely controversial Conquest of the Desert. During this historical event the Argentinian government, in an effort to establish dominance over Patagonia, killed, displaced, and enslaved around 16,000 aboriginals. While the event helped shape the border that stands to this day between Argentina and Chile, due to the systemic nature of this conflict, some have come to consider it genocide.
Our story lays out its period settings by briefly, but poignantly, depicting each party involved during this contentious moment in history. The European influence, represented by Dinesen and his daughter, appear empathetic to the aboriginal presence, and while Dinesen scorns the Patagonia desert for its desolate qualities, his daughter Ingeborg is deeply in love with the romance that only a foreign land may bring. The Conquest of the Desert becomes a backdrop that is touched upon only when necessary, however the very presence of this backdrop draws a direct line between the struggles of our hero and the pain this conflict has left on the history of Argentina.
Throughout Dinesen’s journey we’re truly given time to appreciate the scope of the film’s landscape through Jauja‘s naturalized drawn-out edits. While in most cases landscape films tend to lean towards wide, sometimes anamorphic framing, Jauja finds a way to make 4:3 feel epic. Bringing homage to the days when classic westerns had been ‘formatted to fit your television screen’, cinematographer Timo Salminen perfectly balances his naturally beautiful locations without compromising the truly internal story of his actors.
Paired wonderfully alongside the visual aesthetic is a perfectly simplistic sound design. Lulling the viewer into a trance of falling horse hooves and softly crashing waves, rarely are we disturbed with dialogue and only twice do we hear music before the credits finally roll. The first is a lament Dinesen sings about leaving the women behind for war. (Perhaps in context it is more of an apology to his missing daughter than a true letter home.) The second is a non-diegetic sonata performed by Mortensen himself while he lays bared on a rock, staring at the storm clouds sweeping over the stars, flask in hand.
“The desert swallows all,” and it leaves a history of its transgressions. In the search for his daughter we accompany Dinesen on the journey in full measure. Unflinchingly we watch as he considers whether or not slitting a young man’s throat could truly be merciful. Tirelessly we watch as he trots across yet another expanse of grasslands. With undying hope we sit with him as he is asked again and again, “What is it that makes life function and move forward?” And with a knot in our throat we understand when the only answer is “I don’t know.”
The film provides only one man’s answer to a question that should resonates with every viewer. From a script consisting of only twenty pages, Alonso, with the help of Mortensen and his new writing partner Fabian Casas, has created something heartbreakingly simple. Jauja is a truly meditative experience that allows both active and passive viewers a chance to ask the more frightening questions they may be otherwise too afraid to ask. And in turn, Jauja turns into an active assessment of one’s own place in the universe.