Jauja, directed by Argentina filmmaker Lisandro Alonso, is technically about a Danish general, Gunnar Dinesen (played by Viggo Mortensen), and his daughter Ingeborg (Villbjork Agger Malling) as they are transplanted to the Argentine region of Patagonia in the late 1800s. Set during “the Conquest of the Desert,” a Spanish campaign to eliminate the indigenous peoples of Patagonia, the film has very little actual concrete narrative besides Dinesen’s search for his daughter after she runs away with Corto, a Spanish soldier. But concrete narrative isn’t what you should watch Jauja for.
Juaja’s strengths lie in the cinematography. Every shot is a complicated exercise in depth—Alonso doesn’t allow for simple shots. Any close-up must be accompanied by layers and layers of textured landscape, and even the seemingly basic establishing shots are practically teeming with movement. Juaja is also striking in its sets and costumes. Early in the film, Dinesen tells Inge that they will soon return to Denmark, but Inge tells her father that she likes the desert, that it fills her up. Both the costumes and locations help weave in these ideas of home and belonging that permeate the film. Someone, or something, is always left behind in a shot, even if it isn’t visible. This only serves to drive home the frustration Dinesen feels as he is always one step behind his daughter and her paramour, despite the recurring motifs that leaves the audience feeling that he is always just on the edge of finding her.
But what are they running from, or to? Jaujais full of myth. The film itself opens with text explaining that “jauja” is a paradise, a utopia—one that people search for, but do not find. This defines the theme of the film. A ball that the soldiers and generals talk about but never make it to; Zuluaga, a savage and mysterious figure that never appears in the film but leaves a trail that Dinesen ends up following; instead of offering tangibility to its viewers, the film strips itself of reality and instead forces the audience to consider the journey: sacrifice, desire, how it changes you, and if it’s worth it.
When all hope seems lost, Dinesen finds a wolfhound in the wilderness and follows it to what he hopes is a satisfying end—mirroring, I’m sure, what some members of audience will be hoping for too. However, those looking for an ending of certainty will be dissatisfied with Jauja. Yet through all its ambiguity, occasional irritation, and seeming nonsensicality, Jauja is an immensely rich and rewarding experience which leaves the viewer with echoes of existentialism, colonialism, and the idea that time, existence, and life itself is all a repetitious cycle. Go on for long enough, and you may just find yourself exactly where you started, though it might not look the same.