“It is necessary to understand with what vigor certain ideas seize certain men, who have passed through certain things and have occupied certain stations, in order to understand that a mission to the Ranquels [a tribe in northern La Pampa] can become, for a moderately civilized man like myself, a desire as vehement as a Paris embassy’s secretariat can be for a civil servant.”
—Lucio V. Mansilla
An Expedition to the Ranquel Indians
Jauja, the latest film by Lisandro Alonso, was a surprise for many critics. That’s not because it’s so different from his four previous features, but because it demonstrates that his cinema has a much broader range of possibilities than many previously assumed, and obliges you to look at the entirety of his work, as you would the work of any filmmaker of grand aesthetic ambitions.
Don’t be fooled by the fact that Alonso’s filmography can be described in just a few words: all five of his features deal with solitary men in desolate lands, though the hidden dynamic between a majestic landscape and a society off-screen provides the tension in each story. Alonso’s narratives exist in opposition to those that are articulated by means of a traditional script; he has always found it tough to write a treatment, that almost mandatory instrument for obtaining funding and ensuring that a project becomes a film. Until Jauja, his films had virtually no dialogue, much less any that advanced the plot or defined the characters. The primary needs and desires of Alonso’s characters (food, sex, freedom of movement, family) are on full display, but their inner lives are opaque even to the filmmaker, and that’s what gives rise to the atmosphere of these films, so seemingly simple and yet so difficult to interpret.
It’s been this way since La libertad (01). The first of Alonso’s protagonists is a tree cutter named Misael Saavedra. The film presents his cyclical and solitary life: he is depicted chopping wood with admirable skill, eating, sleeping (and dreaming), going to the village, selling the wood, and returning to cut down more trees. The title of the film (which translates as Freedom) has a certain oneiric implication, but the rock music in the opening titles and a final scene that reveals Misael to be an actor in a film (removed at the time of its Cannes premiere at the behest of the festival’s programmers) ensure that we don’t confuse the contemplative nature of La libertad with that of an anthropological documentary. Nothing could be further from Alonso’s mind than the social sciences, though watching Misael cutting wood is a fascinating cinematographic experience.
La libertad was shot in 35mm, a format that Alonso has continued to use to this day. It was a luxury then for a very low-budget film (made with $50,000 of family money) and seems like an eccentricity now, but it’s one of the many examples of this director’s uncompromising attitude. With Alonso, care for the image has always been paramount.
Born in 1975 in Buenos Aires, raised in the city but fascinated by the countryside, where he worked on his father’s ranch, Alonso studied at the recently created Universidad del Cine (University of Cinema) in the early Nineties, but didn’t graduate. His classmates never imagined he’d make a career for himself. But Alonso also learned from being an assistant to Nicolás Sarquís, a filmmaker who made slow, laconic plein air films and also programmed the legendary Contracampo section of the Mar del Plata film festival. (Alonso’s job was to deliver film reels and transfer videotapes.) Between 1996 and 1998 Sarquís introduced Argentina to the films of directors like Kiarostami, Sokurov, Sharunas Bartas, and Tsai Ming-liang.
La libertad forms with Los muertos (04) and Liverpool (08) a trilogy in which the protagonists are as taciturn as Misael. In Los muertos, a man named Argentino has just served a prison sentence for killing his younger brothers. The film picks him up at the prison’s exit and follows him in his journey downriver to find his daughter. Critics speculated that he is a compulsive murderer who would end up killing her after the film ends. We’ll never know, because the director doesn’t have the slightest idea. There are two constants in Alonso’s cinema: nature and the desire to confront the viewer with primitive ways of life that are far removed from so-called civilization. Cinema becomes a space in which man inhabits indescribable realms of human nature.
Alonso’s first films rely on figures like these, and he never views them with a paternalistic eye; at the same time, he was forging a unique approach to cinema that is meant to be as unreadable as the characters themselves. This approach is made explicit in Fantasma (06), in which Misael and Argentino wander through the Cinemateca Argentina building in Buenos Aires as their films are projected in an empty screening room. The characters are as solitary here as they are in their natural habitats, phantasms invisible to an audience that is absent, somewhere out there beyond the windows that face the street—and that presumably prefers to watch other films. Fantasma expresses Alonso’s identification with his characters’ invisibility—it’s as if they, together with the films in which they appear, belong to a phantom dimension.
Liverpool, Alonso’s third film featuring a silent loner, centers on alcoholic sailor Farrel, who disembarks in Usuaia, at the far tip of Patagonia. From there he sets out for an even more remote destination: an inland sawmill where his mother lives with a mentally disabled girl who turns out to be his daughter. Liverpool has a very particular narrative structure: like Misael and Argentino, Farrel starts out as the subject of the camera’s gaze, but when he arrives at his destination, he himself functions like the camera, faced with a deeply strange reality at a zero degree of humanity that he can hardly bear and from which he finally flees. Neither circular like La libertad nor linear like Los muertos, Liverpool is a mise en abyme that treats the cinema as an instrument whose function is to explore its own limits. Alonso’s filmmaking goal is to acknowledge his own ignorance and make it manifest in order to avoid turning his characters into spectacles. Instead, they are his accomplices or symbols of his own perplexity.
After Liverpool, it was said that Alonso resolved to change his approach in an effort to avoid repeating himself. And Jauja is a change. To begin with, Alonso is going for neither conventional cinema, to which he is unwilling to conform, nor the costumbrismo (representation of ordinary life) style of dramaturgy that forms the nucleus of current Argentine cinema. His risk- taking approach has even less to do with academicism, with the repetition of a formula that maintains his position in the festival world, where his explorations end up being mistaken for miserabilism adorned with virtuous images, a cinema about marginalized people made for museums. Alonso has never aspired to engage with ethnography or installation art, but instead, with Jauja, aims for something purely cinematographic (or rather, impurely cinematographic, following André Bazin’s view that true cinema is an “impure art” always on the brink of being something else).
Jauja is the first time that Alonso has collaborated with a writer and with an internationally recognized star. Both were crucial factors in enabling him to venture into new territory, resulting in his most important film to date. Jauja gives new meaning to Alonso’s past work, proving that his poetics isn’t necessarily tied to the use of non-actors, non-verbal performances, and minimalism. But the participation of Argentine poet and novelist Fabián Casas, actor Viggo Mortensen, and longtime Aki Kaurismäki cameraman Timo Salminen doesn’t merely imply higher production values—it also suggests a combined effort in which literary values, professional performances, and high-quality visuals fuse with and modify Alonso’s approach.
Casas’s contribution consisted not so much in charting the protagonist’s trajectory as in constructing the background of a fictional 19th-century Argentina that ties in, via a dream, with 21st-century Denmark. The film is set in these two distinct places and time periods, which are connected by a small toy soldier that serves the same function as the key chain in Liverpool, which is passed from Farrel to his daughter and represents the same kind of link between two mutually antagonistic ways of life, but set within a realistic framework. In Jauja the toy soldier connects the Patagonian desert circa 1870 with a Danish castle in the present day. There, an adolescent girl named Inge (Viilbjørk Agger Malling) dreams (or perhaps is dreamt, as in Borges) that she is the daughter of Captain Dinesen (Mortensen), a Danish military engineer hired to build up the Argentine army’s defenses against the country’s indigenous peoples. Drawn to the desert, Inge runs off with a soldier (Misael Saavedra, the woodcutter from La libertad), and Dinesen sets off in pursuit, a little like Ethan Edwards in The Searchers (it must be said that Mortensen’s presence is as powerful as John Wayne’s).
Jauja is a radical confirmation of and commentary on what’s at stake for Alonso. For him, cinema is a kind of bridge between a civilized modern world and an alternate primitive and barbaric world to which the former feels drawn and watches with fascination—just as Alonso and his viewers are fascinated by La libertad’s tree cutter, the inexplicable killer of Los muertos, or the world of Liverpool, in which incest isn’t taboo. Here the stakes are doubled thanks to the historical context, through allusions to Domingo Faustino Sarmiento’s 1845 Civilization and Barbarism, one of Argentine literature’s fundamental texts, and Lucio V. Mansilla’s An Expedition to the Ranquel Indians, which was published in 1870 when Sarmiento was president of Argentina. In Jauja, the character of Angel Milkibar (Esteban Bigliardi) is intended as a caricature of Mansilla, a refined aristocrat who served in the military and signed a peace treaty with the indigenous peoples, then became an ambassador and divided his time between Europe and Argentina.
In a sense, Mansilla and Inge embody the ambivalence of Alonso’s cinema toward the primitive, its mixture of attraction to and revulsion from the barbaric. In Jauja, the levels of estrangement become mixed up and confused, and that’s what accounts for the film’s singular tone. As in Alonso’s other films, nature plays a fundamental role as the immutable backdrop to the action, and in this case Timo Salminen’s cinematography endows it with an even more mysterious aura. As filmed by Salminen, Mortensen’s hallucinated journey resembles a more restrained version of Debra Winger’s in The Sheltering Sky. The film’s tone shifts into a realm of unreality that lays the groundwork for a crossover into another dimension, one that will materialize at the end as a counterbalance to the frontier world, and ends up giving Jauja its unique shape. Leaving behind the simple figures of circularity and the straight line of a journey, this new form suggests a game of mirrors. The titular land of Jauja—a mythical medieval domain of abundance and leisure—is also an illusion, a reflection of desire like the worlds depicted in the film, whose artificiality is underscored by the rounded corners of the film’s image. (Although it’s actually just the result of shooting full frame, without a matte.)
Jauja also features one Colonel Zuluaga, an army deserter disguised as a woman who leads a band of natives dedicated to looting. Like Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, Zuluaga faces the horror of barbarism by merging with it, switching sides and even gender. But unlike the solemnity of its European and North American antecedents, Jauja adopts a tone of humor and farce in order to portray the dilemmas of a civilization faced with the unknown. The comedic aspect is clear enough in the scenes at the fort, with its lecherous officials obsessed with Inge, or the theft of Dinesen’s horse and rifle as he sets about the killing of his daughter’s abductor. But it’s also evident in the whole civilizing enterprise, which is tinged with enormous confusion: to begin with, the white soldiers, being mestizos, are not so civilized in the eyes of the Europeans. This confusion corresponds to the particular history of Argentina. As in the case of Masilla, a certain duality existed in the psyche of the ruling class, who looked as much to France as to the Pampa for their sense of identity, never quite knowing where they belonged, while regarding the natives as gaucho barbarians—much as cinema gazes disconcertedly into the abyss between high art and popular entertainment.
The characters’ ambivalent gazes rove across the movie as in all of Alonso’s previous films: the fascination with the dynamic between the primitive and the civilized here is identical to Alonso’s fascination with Argentino, Misael, or Farrel and his shady family. Jauja augments this by crossing between classes, ethnicities, and nationalities. While the camera travels with Dinesen into the desert, Alonso likewise enters unknown territory, delving into the history of film and of Argentina. He stands revealed as a filmmaker reflecting on the relative nature of his oeuvre: how provisional it remains, beyond a single constant, namely the energy and pleasure that goes into its realization. A full interpretation of Jauja will emerge over time—but until then, neither the director, nor the lead actor, nor the screenwriter necessarily understand it any more clearly than viewers or critics will. Alonso and his collaborators undertook an endeavor that has few parallels in contemporary cinema, one whose core is related to Alonso’s artistic freedom and his refusal to follow cinematic paths paved with certitude. The title of Alonso’s first film (which is never explained precisely and is a word seldom applied to contemporary films) continues to be the driving force of his explorations.