The desert is the landscape of the deep gaze. In its austerity, it offers nothing to obstruct a visibility that extends for miles. But in such a setting, one needs to be wary of what one sees—is it the nothing that is not there or the nothing that is? It is just such a perceptual dilemma that rattles Gunnar Dinesen, the Danish surveyor portrayed by Viggo Mortensen in Argentine director Lisandro Alonso’s beautiful, surreal film Jauja.
Early in the film, Dinesen peers through his telescope into the vast distances of the Atlantic Ocean just as he will look into those of the Patagonian Desert, provoking him to announce his desire to leave Argentina and return home to Denmark. His fourteen-year-old daughter Ingeborg replies with dreamy desire, “I love the desert, the way it fills me,” startling Dinesen, especially in light of the fact that Lieutentant Pittaluga—after pleasuring himself in a tidepool as Dinesen scanned the horizon—had just confessed to Dinesen his attraction to Ingeborg. You can see the panic that suddenly seizes Dinesen, the abyss of the landscape opening in his soul.
Set at the end of the nineteenth century, during the “Conquest of the Desert,” when Argentine forces killed or displaced 15,000 native inhabitants, one wonders along with Dinesen why he brought his daughter there. Nothing seems suited for her porcelain beauty—not the rugged landscape; not the savage military campaign that is underway if out of sight; not Zuluaga, the military officer who has gone “invisible,” is rumored to have gone mad, and is now supposedly leading a band of rogues who terrorize the countryside, though there is no proof of his existence; or, for that matter, not any of the men who occupy this desolate place. That is, except for Corto, the attractive young soldier with whom Ingeborg runs away, vanishing into the desert’s interior, into what is essentially Zuluaga country.
Armed with his sword and a rifle, Dinesen pursues the young couple against Pittaluga’s warnings. However, the farther Dinesen gets in his journey, the more lost—physically and psychically—he becomes. As a surveyor, Dinesen’s job is to help “civilize” Patagonia by measuring and parceling out land. In the open stretches of the desert, without his equipment, he has no moorings, no way to figure out where he is, even who he is.
Viggo Mortensen ably brings Dinesen to life. One senses Dinesen’s anger, frustration, and desperation simply in the way Mortensen moves through the landscape—particularly in a seemingly unrehearsed moment when, slipping on a rock, he falls over backward. Upon righting himself, he mutters, “I hate this country,” as he continues on his way.
But in spite of Mortensen’s unquestionable dynamism, the real star of Jauja is arguably Timo Salminen’s gorgeous cinematography. The movie frame is practically a square with the corners slightly rounded, recalling, with the period dress of the characters, silent films or tintype photographs. However, befitting the desert, the images reach deep into the distance, allowing director Alonso to observe action from afar, his characters crawling into the frame on one side and out of it on the other, or, in one key moment, disappearing into the middle of it. Colors, too, are saturated, imbuing images with an almost unreal quality, so that when the action of the film pivots and Dinesen follows a dog underground like Alice chasing the White Rabbit, we can, like Dinesen, no longer tell if what we’re seeing is inside or outside his mind, dream or reality.
The narrative bends even more obliquely in the film’s closing section, which takes a surprising turn, deepening the political implications of story so that it resonates even more ironically with the film’s title, which, we’re informed in a brief preface before the film begins, refers to a place like Shangri La. Moreover, we’re told, “All who have tried to find this earthly paradise got lost on the way.” As the deliberately paced, largely silent action of this strange movie suggests, perhaps it’s only human nature to get lost when the horizon is limitless.