The desert devours everything.
Colonialism, Manifest Destiny, and any other act by a foreign nation to claim the land of an indigenous people as its own are performed with a desire for power and prosperity. It’s about ego and entitlement—the search to create a mythology that glosses over genocide for the “heroism” of a brute that stumbled upon something he didn’t like to think wasn’t automatically his to own. So while Jauja itself is a fabled city of riches and happiness, writer/director Lisandro Alonso uses the word to describe conquest alone. Those who journeyed to find it didn’t therefore become lost along the way in a physical sense, but psychologically and morally instead. They decided home wasn’t good enough, sought to steal another’s, and in turn lost their souls.
Some like Lieutenant Pittaluga (Adrián Fondari) embrace the treachery in this truth. They travel to far away lands with bloodlust to exterminate, rape, and pillage. Others like General Gunnar Dinesan (Viggo Mortensen) seek work, his Dane knowing he shouldn’t have brought his teenage daughter Ingeborg (Viilbjørk Malling Agger) to Patagonia despite having no other choice considering what doing so would earn him. The girl herself becomes a litmus test of sorts for the two. Both unfortunately fail, treating her like property to be bought and sold albeit from different angles. Pittaluga wants to take her while Dinesan yearns to protect her. Neither, however, asks what it is she wants. Her answer: a young soldier named Corto (Diego Roman) whom she runs away with to find her own paradise.
Because this land they travel isn’t theirs, however, none can ever really acquire that which they lust after. Pittaluga will have his rank and freedom, but perhaps not love. Inge will have her love, but perhaps not a life to live after. And Dinesan will have his time and money to buy that which he wants while losing the single commodity he can never reclaim. They each therefore disappear in one way or another just like the AWOL officer Zuluaga who’s vanished without a trace besides rumor and hearsay. It’s the hubris of man always wanting more that forces them into situations they’re too blind to predict. The natives aren’t beasts to be tamed or murdered. They will fight back and you and yours will be their target.
There’s no one else to blame under these circumstances but you. The opening third of Alonso’s film is Dinesan having to make choices he struggles to weigh against their future ramifications. Inge becomes more important to him than his dynamic with Pittaluga, but less important than the work he’s been tasked to complete. So worried about the countless predators lurking above her innocence, he refuses to see her movements to ensnare a catch of her own. Only when he wakes up to find her gone does she finally take precedence over himself. That’s when he risks danger to journey into enemy territory and find her. That’s when he realizes she was his Jauja—a fact learned too late now that his worst nightmares have come true.
Shot as a series of staged compositions within a rounded corner, 4:3 frame that mimics an aesthetic long past, it’s as though Alonso wants us to feel as though we’re watching a storybook unfold rather than life captured. There’s crispness to the colors and picture that’s forever out-of-place with the time and texture of the landscape. It’s like the difference between film and digital wherein the whole exists in this uncanny valley of artificiality augmented by extra-long shots lingering on characters with nothing left to do besides stare and stew in a way that renders drama absurd. The people are archetypes going through weirdly stilted motions to ensure Dinesan’s path forward into oblivion, fantasy, and sorrow. They’re pawns blocking his escape from a reckoning of his own making.
This is why Alonso and co-writer Fabian Casas take us to impossible places during the middle third as Dinesan loses himself to dread, dehydration, and fatigue. He finds a trail that simultaneous leads towards his daughter and her demise since everything discovered confirms her presence if only to highlight the ticking clock of life remaining. It culminates in a cave visit led by a dog acting as his guide through the arduous landscape that’s been dwarfing him and his education, purpose, and identity with its all-consuming appetite for man. There he meets an old woman (Ghita Nørby) talking in riddles, metaphors, and abstractions as life folds in on itself towards a heartbreaking expression of pained shock on Mortensen’s face—his quest finally coming to its fruitless end.
The final third asks what might have been by showing happiness away from the pursuit of excess. It shows a quiet (if large) home with land that wasn’t stolen (at least not like that of a Patagonia in the throes of Spain’s “Conquest of the Desert” campaign). The spiritual nature of what was before comes full circle until that which was lost is found in a different time and different place—the memories of the past but a fleetingly surreal dream dripping with dominance and death. If all time exists in one point, what we see is thus two glimpses of a present ruled by two philosophies ending in anguish and relief respectively. It may take a century, but perhaps young Inge will get her wish after all.
Watched in conjunction with my Buffalo, NY film series Cultivate Cinema Circle.
 Viilbjørk Malling Agger & Viggo Mortensen in a scene from Lisandro Alonso’s JAUJA. Courtesy of Cinema Guild.
 Viilbjørk Malling Agger & Esteban Bigliardi in a scene from Lisandro Alonso’s JAUJA. Courtesy of Cinema Guild.
 Viggo Mortensen in a scene from Lisandro Alonso’s JAUJA. Courtesy of Cinema Guild.