Once I was hiking in a western National Park, a place with desert and mountains. The trail began on a nondescript salt flat and, then, wandered to some low, parched boulders. Although the guide-book promised all kinds of marvels, I didn't see much of anything but sun and the baked carapace of "desert concrete" and, then, a furnace-like trough in the outcropping where the path led upward over barren boulders. Emerging from a slit in the stone, I suddenly found myself among pinnacles and minarets of wind-sculpted rock, a whole army of stone chess-men strewn across a basin drifting with multi-colored sands. The walk to what appeared to be just another burnt rock formation led to a wonderful, hidden landscape.
The 2014 Argentine film, Jauja, attempts a similar effect. (The film is Lisandro Alonso's fifth feature -- apparently, all of his movies are similar to this picture.) Although there are people in the movie, they exist only as cursors dragged across vast empty landscapes. The idea is to transport the people that we see dwarfed in these landscapes into the space of the sublime and wonderful. If there is a plot of Jaujau, it is about a man's incursion into a strange landscape and the things that he beholds in that place. As the film opens, we see a man and his daughter dressed in Victorian clothing sitting on a rocky beach among terraces of rock eroded into bath-tub-shaped tidepools. The girl asks her father to get her a dog that "will follow me wherever I go." Her father says he will do this -- but only when they return to Denmark. It's a strange landscape with living things in the remote distance, perhaps, small seals although we can't see the creatures distinctly. A man bathes in a pool rhythmically masturbating. Later, this man dons bright red trousers and asks the hero, played by Viggo Mortenson for his daughter -- the man says he will buy her for a horse since the person who rides in these wild parts "rides like a King." There is talk of a military ball at a nearby fort -- we never see the fort or the ball -- and a renegade named Zalauga who may be leading the local Indians in an uprising. The men call the Indians "cocoa-nut heads" and vow to exterminate them. In one of the tidal pools, someone finds a six-inch tall toy soldier with a red coat and musket. In the night, the hero's daughter elopes with a young soldier who seems to be half-Indian, a man named Corto. The guy in the red pants offers to hunt Corto down, but Viggo Mortenson's character (significantly, he is called Colonel Dinesen) says that this is his duty. He departs on horseback across the desert. The lovers embrace at a stream surrounded by flamboyantly tall and exuberant grasses. Dinesen encounters a crew digging a ditch, possibly for a railroad, and, then, finds a man tortured to death among strange totem poles on a hilltop. After more traveling, he finds Corto dying with his throat slit -- the girl, Ingeborg, is nowhere to be seen. While Dinesen is trying to saw-off Corto's head with his sword, a dark hand enters the frame and steals the European's rifle and, later, his horse. On foot, Dinesen wanders through the wilderness. A Norwegian wolfhound with a raw sore on its side appears in the desert and Dinesen follows the animal through the wasteland. He comes to a volcanic caldera where there is a spring and a weird woman living like a troll in a rocky fissure. The woman tells Dinesen that "One man is not all men" -- reversing the Borgesian formula -- she also asks "what is it that makes a life go forward and function?" Dinesen continues his quest and falls asleep under a sky full of smeared stars. Without any advance warning, the film cuts to elegant-looking European chateau with stone towers and immense gardens. The young woman played by the actress in the role of the vanished daughter, Ingeborg, wakes up. She has breakfast (the house has modern appliances) and, then, goes outside to tend her pack of Norwegian wolf hounds. One of the dogs has a sore on its side, but her father, who is grooming the animals, says that with antibiotic and lotion the dog will soon be better. The father says that dogs obsessively scratch and lick themselves when something bothers them that they can't figure out. The girl leads the dog away from the estate, passing through a symbolic-looking gate that could furnish a painting by Caspar David Friedrich. With the dog, the girl explores a lush forest where there is a tiny lake. The girl finds a six-inch tall wooden soldier. She tosses the wooden soldier into the pond and, then, the landscape blurs into an image of the stony beach where the film began, the inscrutable living creatures wriggling a little on horizon.
The film presents an enigma organized around certain images: the toy soldier, the compass in its wooden box that the girl takes from the encampment when she elopes, the dog with its wounded side. All shots are static and last from 30 seconds to a couple minutes in length -- generally, the shot simply shows someone approaching the camera or departing toward the Patagonian horizon, crossing an immense, silent, and motionless landscape. There is very little dialogue and the speech that we hear doesn't clarify anything -- in the first twenty minutes there is lots of talk about a ball at the fort that is completely meaningless and leads nowhere. After the girl elopes, the film is distilled to its essence -- a pure chase or pursuit across impassive and, increasingly, hostile landscapes. The film suggests archetypes -- the image of a lone wanderer chasing a woman who can not be seen and who leaves increasingly few traces seems integral to the movie: in some ways, the picture is a meditation on John Ford's The Searchers. The toy soldier that appears mysteriously in the desert, on the seashore, and, then, in the lush Danish woods seems to symbolize the lone searcher -- a figure with which the woman plays, but, then, discards. The film is full of startling images but paced slowly that it is difficult to stay awake if you are watching this picture alone in a warm room before going to bed -- sleeping during the film doesn't harm the experience: in fact, it makes the movie seem even more hallucinatory and visionary: I fell asleep as the man was entering a cleft in a rock, woke briefly to see him sitting with a strange older woman, a kind of Norn, in a grotto that looked like it was made of black mirrors, and, then, opened my eyes again to see a castle in Denmark and a dock extending over dark water -- the membrane of the water seems to flex and repel reflections when the girl walks out onto the dock to throw away the toy soldier. The picture is shot in a curious aspect ratio -- it is pillar-boxed and this gives the viewer the effect of seeming the images as if projected by some kind of ancient magic lantern system or a toy viewmaster (the images are shot 4:3 in what is called Academy ratio with the edges of the frame elegantly curved.) It's an uncanny film that requires more research -- it's also slim and enigmatic to the point of vanishing, the distillation of Antonioni's L'Aventurra to its quintessence. When asked at a film festival Q & A, Alonso said he didn't know himself what the movie meant.