“The Ancient Ones said that Jauja was a mythological land of abundance and happiness. Many expeditions tried to find the place to verify this. With time, the legend grew disproportionately… The only thing that is known for certain is that all who tried to find this earthly paradise got lost on the way.”
“You’re trying to make sense of what’s happening, and gradually starting to lose the ability to make sense of it, but you still insist, looking for logic.”1
When an audience member at the New York Film Festival asked director Lisandro Alonso how to pronounce the title of his latest film, he replied, “It’s pronounced, ‘Fuck you.'” Alonso later expressed some regret, but in an extremely sorry-not-sorry fashion (“I mean, you can ask if you want, but ask the people sitting next to you.”2). Luckily Jauja’s promotional poster saves newer audiences their blushes, prominently displaying “How-Ha” beneath the title. Alonso’s onscreen epigraph, partly reproduced above, is however a little misleading; his characters are not actually on the hunt for Jauja, not precisely, anyway.
“País de Jauja” is a common Spanish expression referring to the mythical “land of plenty” (also per Jauja’s poster – thanks again, marketing team), which has equivalents in many countries, worldwide. The mythical city, analogous with the medieval Cockaigne, said to be a place of luxury, idleness and gluttony, was created as a fantastical escape from grueling medieval reality. It’s also a real place (once the capital of Spanish Peru, now the capital of Jauja Province), the wealth of which at the time of the Spanish conquest in the 1530s gave name to the Spanish iteration of the legend.
The majority of Jauja, however, takes place in late 19th century Patagonia, during the so-called Conquest of the Desert. Patagonia (by car, 66 hours “without traffic” from Peruvian Jauja, thank you, Google Maps), was itself named, by Magellan in 1520, for a mythical race of extraordinarily tall people the explorer claimed to have discovered on his travels along the South American coastline. The Conquest of the Desert, meanwhile, is a euphemistic description of what was, in Viggo Mortensen’s translation, “a genocidal war against the aboriginal population”.3 Mortensen’s seemingly anomalous character, a Danish engineer named Dinesen, is representative of the European assistance drafted by the Argentinian government to assist their ‘civilising’ campaign.
Alonso’s previous work includes the so-called Lonely Man trilogy, La Libertad (2001), Los Muertos (2004) and Liverpool (2008), though his other features, Fantasma (2006) and now Jauja, could also comfortably co-exist under that banner. Los Muertos in particular shares some of Jauja’s preoccupations, namely the dogged pursuit of a daughter and the journey into wilderness. To date, Alonso’s films have been recognisable for their lack of dialogue, stemming organically, it seems, from their focus on taciturn, solitary protagonists, usually played by non-professional actors. With Jauja, his first film in collaboration with a writer (Fabián Casas) and a major star (Mortensen), Alonso breaks from that practice. The director’s reasons for doing so are at the root of the film’s inception.
After Liverpool, unsure whether to continue making films, eager not to repeat himself, Alonso returned to his family’s farm, got married and started his own family. There contemplating resuming work, he received word in September 2009 that a close friend, the Slovenian film critic Nika Bohinc, had been killed in the Philippines. Struck by the loss, the director fixated on the idea of her parents having to fly over to return her body, and how they would cope with the sudden loss. Alonso shortly began working with Casas, producing a 20-page script, and soon Jauja’s storyline was outlined in Alonso’s 2011 short, Sin título (Carta para Serra). “Following her advice,” Alsono explains of Bohinc and Jauja, “I have devoted more space to words here, and to my own desires.”4
Casas’ involvement brought the project into his friend Mortensen’s orbit. By all accounts, the actor’s contribution was transformative. The protagonist became Danish instead of English, historically improbable but not implausible, though the actor himself was born in New York and raised in Argentina. Mortensen has explained, “I did research and found out some Danish people—and usually a guy like that, a military person—would’ve left Denmark under kind of complicated circumstances” (i.e. chosen exile over imprisonment).5 The actor drew upon his Danish father’s heavily-accented Spanish speaking voice for the role.
Mortensen also contributed the opening scene, music (drawn from his ongoing collaboration with guitarist Buckethead), and his own costume, vintage 1874, complemented with authentic service medals from the First and Second Schleswig Wars. “I also promised myself,” he has explained, “I would speak the Danish of that era, by remembering how my grandparents spoke and by reading books from the period.”6 Polyglot Mortensen also brought fluency in Spanish to the table, thus we can be confident dialogue like, “¡Mi hija está invisible!” – “My daughter is invisible!”, rather than ‘missing’ – reflects his character’s imperfect grasp of Spanish, rather than his own.
Despite all this authenticity, the film has a deliberate quality of unreality, an artificiality enhanced by the temporal and geographical schism that transforms and elevates the film in its final minutes. Writing in Sight and Sound, Mar Diestro-Dópido asserted that “Jauja is most definitely not a period piece, more the illusion of one,”7 while the New York Times’ AO Scott described the film as “frankly anti-realist”.8 However, it’s almost as if Alonso’s previous devotion to realism can’t be entirely expunged, since the director has allowed for one reading, among the many plausible, that the entire main body of the film is an intense, Python-esque LARP exercise. After all, we never visit the referenced fort, nor the Minister of War’s ball, attending instead nothing but the timeless landscape.
If that sounds entire implausible, perhaps it is, but bear in mind Mortensen has suggested the entire film may represent the dream of Ingeborg/Viilbjørk’s dog, or even of the recurring wooden soldier.9 David Jenkins of Little White Lies similarly offers that “Dinesen may have died, may be dreaming or is possibly even the embodiment of someone else’s dream.”10 Dinesen’s increasingly absurd, dogged search for his vanished daughter is the only response that makes any sense to him, though it’s possible he knows it’s doomed from the outset, given the ceremony with which he sets out. Jauja is therefore most simply about loss and, to paraphrase the film, what it is that makes a life function and move forward. Jauja itself is a dream – whether Ingeborg’s, Alonso’s or ours – consolatory, illusory, necessary.
Sean Welsh, April 2015
This article was originally commissioned as a programme note by GFT.
1. Viggo Mortensen, ‘Just Get Seduced’: An Interview with Lisandro Alonso and Viggo Mortensen by Calum Marsh
2. Lisandro Alonso, Interview: Lisandro Alonso On Why Viggo Mortensen Was the Ideal Partner for ‘Jauja’ by Eric Kohn
3. Viggo Mortensen, Jauja production note
4. Alonso, Jauja production note, ibid
5. Mortensen, Marsh interview, ibid
6. Mortensen, Lost in the Pampas, by Pierre Boisson, So Film, No 4, February 2014, p41
7. Mar Diestro-Dópido, Paradise Lost, Sight & Sound, Volume 25, Issue 5, May 2015, p20
8. AO Scott, Review: ‘Jauja,’ a Desperate Odyssey in the Argentine Desert
9. Mortensen, Viggo Mortensen on ‘Jauja,’ Producing, Protecting Directors’ Visions
10. David Jenkins, Jauja review, Little White Lies, Issue 58, Mar/Apr 2015, p58