Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja—which plays again at the Siskel Center tonight and tomorrow—should be seen on a big screen or not at all. Crucial scenes of this art house spectacle transpire in extreme long-shot, the actors presented as mere dots on the Patagonian Desert landscapes where the action unfolds. On a TV or computer screen, you can hardly make out the human figures during such moments, which might lead you to believe that nothing’s happening in the shots. In a theater, though, the characters are big enough to discern, while the verdant, rocky settings, rendered monumental, make the characters seem insignificant. (The soundtrack—a dense mix of wind, animal noises, and other vividly recorded phenomena—makes the natural world seem even more imposing.) This dwarfing of people by nature isn’t just awesome to behold—it’s central to what Jauja‘s about. The movie’s also about the legacy of Spanish colonialism in South America, but Alonso is too oblique and intuitive a filmmaker to issue anything like a historical statement. Jauja is, first and foremost, an experience.
Ironically this movie—in which environments are as integral as people, if not more—happens to be Alonso’s first to feature an internationally famous star. Viggo Mortensen plays a Danish surveyor living on a Spanish outpost in southern Argentina sometime in the 18th or 19th century. In the second half of Jauja, he leaves the outpost to search for his teenage daughter, who’s run off with a Spanish officer. Mortensen comes to lose his horse and eventually his way, leaving himself open to attack by natives and by another Spanish officer named Zuluaga. Before the story begins, Zuluaga left the outpost in search of a mythical land (“Jauja”) and is rumored to have gone crazy in the process, roaming the steppe as a violent bandit. It’s possible that Mortensen goes crazy as well, depending on whether or not images that appear at the movie’s climax are real. In any case, his character is so introverted—and Alonso’s perspective is so detached—from the start of the film that it’s hard to tell whether he changes at all.
Alonso uses his star much like he used the nonprofessionals who appeared in his earlier films (among them Los Muertos and Liverpool)—less as an actor than as a physical presence. The role must have posed an exciting challenge for Mortensen—an actor who routinely disappears into his characters—since it doesn’t offer much concrete psychology or personal history for him to disappear into. Pitted against the natural world, his civilized presence seems genuinely out of place in a way that Robert Redford’s did not in All Is Lost (a film that, incidentally, felt like an sentimental version of Los Muertos). One of Mortensen’s most important lines in Jauja is, in fact, “We don’t belong here.”
It isn’t clear whether Mortensen’s surveyor is referring to himself and his daughter or to all Europeans in South America. Given Alonso’s depiction of Spanish colonialists, though, you might assume the latter. Central to the opening scenes of Jauja is a Spanish officer named Pittaluga, who would seem to represent colonialism at its worst. “It’s strange to build up a country, a place,” he tells Mortensen, “but one must embrace an idea and push on with it. It’s what separates us from the coconut heads [Native Americans], who move from place to place, stealing and killing like animals.” These words remind us of the genocide of the Americas’ indigenous population, and they hang heavily over the rest of the film. Indeed the film’s depopulated landscapes might be described as postgenocidal.
Emphasizing the theme of missing persons, Alonso refuses to show us multiple characters who factor prominently in the dialogue: Zuluaga, many of the Spanish soldiers on the base, or the natives whom Pittaluga disparages. While searching for his daughter Mortensen at one point passes a team of European soldiers digging a trench. The image feels positively alien, since you’re not used to seeing so many people in the same shot. The presence of a crowd feels disruptive, even if you can’t immediately articulate why. It’s as though Alonso wants to adopt the perspective of the Patagonian Desert itself, for which the first European settlers (even those as inherently charismatic as Viggo Mortensen) might as well have been space aliens. That so much of the film evades understanding—not just the viewer’s, but the characters’—suggests that the desert might be having its revenge on the people that bewildered it.