To my knowledge, Lisandro Alonso has not acknowledged any landscape painters or paintings as an influence on his work. The genre has been understood as a nationalistic gesture in the face of imperialism, something that emphasizes the decidedly natural beauty of a place when (re)presented absent colonialist forces, and this understanding is undoubtedly present in Alonso’s Jauja, which follows the Danish Gunnar Dinesen (Viggo Mortensen), contracted to bolster a Spanish military group seeking to wipe out the indigenous peoples, as he searches for his daughter, Inge (Viilbjørk Malling Agger) who was either abducted or ran away with a man.

The film is shot in the 1.33:1 “academy” aspect ratio, but here its corners are rounded off instead of square, bestowing the film with a feeling not just of antiqueness and the past but also a self-conscious attention to the image itself (the effect is achieved merely by foregoing a matte while filming). Alonso delivers on that promise, with foregrounded figures being dwarfed by or in tension with Patagonia’s deserts, steppes, grasslands, or mountains in the background, all beautifully photographed by Aki Kaurismäki’s longtime cameraman Timo Salminen. As Dinesen goes off to find his daughter, he becomes the sole individual amidst the gorgeous Argentine landscape. Cue comparisons to John Ford’s The Searchers, another film about a man searching for a family member in danger in which every picturesque landscape serves as a reminder that the protagonist (and ostensible hero by default) is a colonizing force, but the stranger in the strange land and the largely-unseen but omnipresent society are staples of Alonso’s cinema, to say nothing of the vastly different tonal registers of the two films. But if Jauja is a western, as many critics (not wrongfully) insist, it is closer to Meek’s Cutoff than The Searchers; the directionlessness of Dinesen and his loss of both rifle and horse the men in Reichardt’s film far more than The Searchers’ Ethan Edwards. Moreover, Ford’s characters tended to conquer the opposing landscape, even when that conquering is problematized as heavily as it is in The Searchers; Dinesen does not and is even reluctant to try, as demonstrated in a scene where he defends the natives against the Spaniards. If all the scheming and planning in Jauja’s beginning suggests initiative and drive, the second hour of its runtime is proof of the inevitability of the fact that, as one character says, “the desert devours everything”—a statement whose function to the narrative is not unlike the “Are we lost?” exchange of Reichardt’s masterpiece.

What is most remarkable about Alonso’s film is how its entire shot structure seems to progress in relation to Dinesen’s mindset. Whereas the film’s opening sequences always depict Dinesen (and others) amidst a landscape, as foreign invaders of these natural beauties, his lone quest sees Alonso gradually opt for semi-autonomous or point-of-view landscape shots rather than deep-focus medium-close-ups and medium shots. As Argentina itself takes on an increasingly explicit role in the film, Dinesen’s importance shrinks by comparison. He is not able to justify his presence or uphold his colonialist gestures—and the allegory of a father seeking to retrieve his daughter from natives is nothing if not a colonialist and western patriarchal gesture—and is gradually overpowered by the landscape. He loses his horse; a dog becomes a more captivating screen presence; he struggles to climb—to conquer—a mountain. When he at last enters a cave—and this is what will stick in the mind of most viewers—either he or the movie seems to adjust to his possible triumph by going crazy. The question “to what end?” is difficult to answer, but the transition itself is remarkable, inexplicable but also immediately acceptable even before a recurring symbol (much like the chain in Alonso’s earlier Liverpool) ties together spatial-temporal discrepancies.

Perhaps it’s a tieback to the film’s opening title card, which tells us about the eponymous “fabled city of riches and happiness” and the searchers who disappeared on their search for it. As Dinesen dehydrates and is enveloped by landscape, Jauja, a sort of allegory for the unspoken political/economical motivators that situate the film, swallows him up, detectable only centuries later through the above-mentioned symbol. Perhaps instead the answer rests in explanations such as “it’s a dream,” the split being a purely thematic way of displaying the subconscious colonialist urges still present in western life. Or perhaps it is something else entirely. Whatever the case is, Jauja is a beguiling, fascinating film, and one that artfully demonstrates something that at first seems entirely graspable, only to float just out of reach. If you can’t quite grab it now, stretch a bit, then try again.

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