Jodorowsky meets Werner Herzog to share a dream of loss and fatherhood. I loved this film. Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja is the surreal tale of a Danish father and daughter embroiled in a military coup in Argentina. Viggo Mortensen is Gunner Dinesen, a Captain in the military force that seeks to locate and disarm a cruel, shape shifting deserter they believe to be leading a rebellion in the desert. His young daughter, Ingeborg, runs away with the soldier charged with finding Zuluaga, the deserter, and Mortensen pursues them into the desert where the seams between madness and reality have split, and the landscape itself assumes a character with its own, ineffable intentions. Jauja has the saturated look of a 60s western, filmed using a mix of natural and theatrical lighting, and summons the texture of Jodorowsy’s more melancholic imagery. Beautifully shot, Jauja is essentially about anguish, illusion and the desperation of a father to hold onto the innocence of his daughter whose flight from him drives him into the mouth of madness. It is patiently structured, with the frantic contents of humanity being subsumed by the steady yet morally neutral constancy of the desert.
There are some beautifully lyrical elements to the narrative, which is loose. The passage of a wooden soldier through the oceans of time persistently returns to the hands of father, and daughter, and daughter’s lover, its meaning changing from emblem to trifle, depending on whose hands it falls to is one such thread. The soldier, first seen floating in the otherworldly tidal pools at Argentina’s southern coast, is plucked from the sea and given to Inge by the boy who would become her lover, and later leads her father to a mountain crone whose sense of time has eroded, and who may have some insight into the whereabouts of the girl. Both Ingeborg’s father and her lover are soldiers, and both reduced to playthings: the soldier to the fickle wonder of a young girl who may ultimately lead him into danger or death, and with whom he does not share a common language; her father the instrument of loss and devotion to a spectre who is never to return, both filled and consumed by the monstrous landscape of the desert. The toy continues to return to the hands of the young girl whose commodity is rarer and more desired than wealth, and who absently seals the fates of those who covet her while erasing herself from existence. To Inge the toy soldier is a plaything of childhood, a message to herself at different ages, through history, that briefly delights her. It is an in joke with herself. To her father it is a symbol of that which took her from him and a signpost leading him into certain madness in the desert. To the boy, it is a gift for a pretty girl with whom he cannot speak but wishes only to please.
That the desert eventually consumes all things – including the dreams of men and often the men themselves, as well as the fabric of time they are cloaked in – enables it to be a strange double-entity: it causes both angst and deepest relief. That a man might fall from one flat surface beneath his feet to utter disappearance both troubles the regulations of time and existence, and soothes the living by blurring the boundaries of their occupied territory. In this way it is different from Herzog’s Nature – an indifferent and yet intrinsically oppositional force of defiance and decay where life and death battle constantly for control of every particle – and different from Jodorowsky’s desert of the infinite reflected poetics of men – a landscape that serves only to scupper the traveller by showing him all the things he most wants to see before committing them to dust or some other chaotic version of dissolve. Alonso’s desert is the ever-shifting plane of subliminality: it is the real territory that is neither tethered to life or dream, but that gently guides all who enter it to be subsumed by its patience. Zuluaga, the deserter, seems to be transformed by the desert. Although he is rarely seen up close, and largely exists only as a rumor or a figure in the distance – a mirage of impending doom – he seems to have become an embodied instrument of the desert that desires the unstitching of time from both dream and reality. He moves easily between both worlds, embedding himself in the hearts of men while pulling at the threads that hold them in time and space as living, or dreaming, beings.