Lost In Time's Terrain: Lisandro Alonso's Jauja

Back in Cargo #4, I wrote that even as one acknowledges the creative vigor of Argentinian cinema over the last fifteen years, there are clearly two filmmakers standing head and shoulders above the pack. They are Lucrecia Martel (who I was writing about in that earlier piece) and Lisandro Alonso. While it’s always a relief to look back at an aesthetic judgment made five years ago and see that it still stands, it strikes me as a rather uncontroversial claim. Perhaps some critics would be inclined to go to bat for Pablo Trapero, a maker of highly polished art films whose work since Crane World (1999) and El bonaerense (2002) has been distinguished mostly by a drab indifference to style. But while Trapero is a respected producer and director, Martel and Alonso are globally recognized artists known for breaking with the stifling expectations of film form. Theirs is a politics of perception, banking on the transformative potential of dense images and sounds.

Alonso has always been the tougher filmmaker, for a number of reasons. Unlike Martel, whose authorial signature tends to be ideological and thematic, Alonso holds fast to a set of formal procedures that clearly spring from his own idiosyncrasies and desires. His method of organizing what we see and hear, and how time and space are articulated as parameters for active spectatorial consideration, is the ground from which social and political considerations bubble up. That is, Alonso’s cinema foregrounds some of the most basic elements of the human experience, not to return us to some mythic “noble savage” state but to show how identity and commitment emerge through work done, miles traversed, callouses hardened to the friction of the earth.

As with other like-minded film artists (e.g., Pedro Costa, Lav Diaz, Ben Rivers), Alonso has been something of a specialty item in the cinematic universe for years. This is partly because of the extremely physical aspect of his films, his absolute preference for bodies and landscapes over conventional plot. But it is also a result of his commitment to working with non-professional actors, individuals who often inspire the very films in which they “star” by virtue of the lives they lead. This is why Alonso’s latest film, Jauja, has taken so many by surprise. Instead of a reclusive woodsman (La libertad, 2001) or an ex-con river rat (Los Muertos, 2004), this time Alonso gives us Viggo Mortensen.

Despite being Alonso’s first film to feature a bona fide movie star, Jauja (pronounced HOW-ha) is a logical extension of the patient, materialist cinema this filmmaker has been producing all along. However there is a distinctly new openness to movement, a decision to organize the film around roaming and, ultimately, being lost. If we think of Misael Saavedra, the woodsman who is the focal point of La libertad, he essentially remains in one place, in an almost symbiotic relationship with the forest that provides his sustenance. (The sly smile Misael gives the camera in the final shot tells us that he and Alonso labored to produce this thematic effect, that La libertad was by no means ethnography.) The journeys that comprise Alonso’s other major films – Argentino Vargas returning from prison in Los Muertos and Farrel (Juan Fernández) heading back to Tierra del Fuego in Liverpool (2008) – are leisurely and involve delays but are basically movements from point A to point B. Jauja flattens the filmic field, allowing for a new kind of disorientation.

This is largely because Alonso is exploring historical and political questions with a new directness. Mortensen plays Capt. Gunnar Dinesen, a Danish engineer who is part of a team of Europeans toiling along the Patagonian coast in order to bring “civilization” to the area. It is the late 19th century, and the so-called civilizing process is primarily about expunging Patagonia of indigenous peoples in what has come to be known as the Conquest of the Desert. Jauja (the title refers to a mythical El Dorado) combines Alonso’s ongoing interest in landscape and bodily activity with the colonial unconscious, the sense that historical atrocity haunts the land upon which modernity is erected. If men like Vargas and Misael are avatars of Argentina’s class divisions, the nation’s financial disarray as the penumbra of a deeper post-colonial class divide, then Dinesen is an early patrician interloper, a well-intentioned human mistake calling from out of the past.

And in considering these crimes of early modernity, it is significant that Alonso and Mortensen provide us with Dinesen as our point of entry, a Scandinavian liberal of impeccable moral fiber. He is contrasted quite vividly with Spaniards such as Lt. Pittaluga (Adrian Fondari), a disgusting cad who openly lusts for Dinesen’s 15 year old daughter Ingeborg (Viilbjork Agger Malling) and can be seen jerking off into the camp’s watering hole in the third shot of the film, wearing the gold chains of a conquistador. Pittaluga and other soldiers call the dark-skinned locals “cocos,” discounting them as worthy of human consideration; Dinesen protests that it is important to “try to understand them,” to think of the settlement as an overall project of uplift.

It is crucial for Jauja’s own critical project that Dinesen is the man who loses his bearings; while the racist Spaniards, right or wrong, know exactly where they stand, he is the liminal figure who will bear the weight of a post-colonial future that is as yet unimaginable. Dinesen is essentially the harbinger of the crisis of European liberalism. While he sleeps, his daughter runs off with Corto (Esteban Bigliardi), a young soldier who is largely nondescript. However, as Alonso and cinematographer Timo Salminen depict him, he is virtually an outgrowth of the land -- a uniform posed against a rock, or a figure awash in reeds, fooling around with Ingeborg in the midfield of the image.

Once Dinesen leaves camp on horseback to try to retrieve Ingeborg, we see how Alonso is truly reorganizing his customary sense of filmic space. Although Jauja is not a Western per se, it has certain stylistic similarities to recent neo-revisionist tales of settlement and exploration, especially Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff and Thomas Arslan’s underrated Gold. As with those films, or for that matter Gus Van Sant’s Gerry, Jauja is chiefly presented as a fractured map, a set of wide, flat spaces that do not forge a coherence for either viewer or protagonist. They’re films about being hopelessly lost. But Alonso adds to this set of parameters in a number of surprising ways.

Dinesen is not beset by “natives,” and the elements do not present extraordinary challenges. Rather, the madness of the colonial pursuit itself is what has turned his attempted rescue into a hopeless and possibly deadly game of chess. Not only is he trying to contain Ingeborg’s sexual desire, a bell that cannot be unrung. He has also learned of a mysterious military man, Zuluga, who has lost his mind and run amok. Before leaving camp, Dinesen is regaled with rumors and legends about Zuluga. Pittaluga has heard he is traveling the plains dressed as a woman. Eventually Zuluga slaughters Corto, but Ingeborg is still nowhere to be found.

However, as he becomes thoroughly disoriented and his quest seems utterly hopeless, Dinesen follows a mangy dog to a small cave. There is a slight glow emanating from its entrance. Like a Patagonian Tardis, the grotto is spacious inside, revealing the home of an elderly woman. Through her strange conversation with Dinesen, the cave dweller speaks of “the girl,” of “the girl’s mother,” and of “my mother,” but it seems as though all of these subject positions are somewhat collapsed for her. Alonso, one of the last filmmakers working today from whom we would expect a dip into the supernatural, has orchestrated a father / daughter reunion, seemingly as Dinesen nears his last breath.

This being with an odd purple hat is Ingeborg as an old woman, close to the end of her own journey, one that would be another movie for another time. And she asks, “what is it that makes a life function and move forward?” Until now, Lisandro Alonso’s cinema has always answered that question with pictures of a proletarian work ethic, the need to traverse space and perhaps attain minor redemption. With Jauja, a related but slightly different solution is posed. Time and history move us forward, even when there is no longer an “us” to move.