I am a recent initiate into the world of Alejandro Jodorowsky and am therefore making up for lost time by studying the canon, beginning at the beginning with El Topo and The Holy Mountain. I was brought to awareness by seeing Jodorowsky’s Dune, by Frank Pavich, the documentary about the efforts to film Frank Herbert’s epic sci-fi novel, Dune. This only fueled my interest to know more about one of the more charismatic and enigmatic film makers around. Therefore I felt somewhat prepared to see his last film (after a 23 year hiatus). I felt that I might be somewhat shock-proof. Jodorowsky loves to shock.
And while there was plenty of mind-bending outré images and unexpectedly surreal episodes, there was a very different feeling about all of the on screen goings on. In El Topo and The Holy Mountain, one feels that he is strictly communicating allegorically his vision of the world, religion, transcendence and the human condition. In this film the characters feel more real as opposed to metaphors in a mise en scène, even though his mother sings all of her lines in a beautiful operatic soprano voice. There is a trajectory in their character development not typical in the more abstract and polemical early work of Jodorowsky. The autobiographical nature of the film has made it much more personal and accessible.
It takes place in the 1930‘s in the actual town where he was born and spent his early years, a seaside industrial town called Tocopilla, on the coast of Chile. The Jodorowsky family are Ukrainian Jews who own an underwear shop decorated incongruously by a large stern poster of Stalin on the wall. They employ a dwarf who stands outside the store in various costumes and sandwich boards and does bizarre carnival-style antics to attract customers. Jaime (Brontis Jodorowsky), the father is as stern with his wife, Sara (Pamela Flores)and his son, Alejandro (Jeremias Herskowits) as he imagines his hero Stalin to be. He is particularly fixated on toughening up his sensitive, timid son “to be a man”. This is complicted by the fact that both father and son periodically experience cruel anti-semitic taunts.
After one early “toughening up” excercise, Alejandro races down to the beach trying to outrun his mortification and begins hurling stones into the ocean. A local drunken hag who lives in a shack on the beach tells him that he will hurt the fish by doing that. In the next moment a huge wave crashes onto the shore dumping thousands of sardines on the beach. There follows a chaotic scene between the hungry seagulls and the hungry villagers all trying to scoop up all the fish. Here we have the first of many appearances by a grey-haired man (Alejandro Jodorowsky) who arrives from nowhere and gently embraces the small Alejandro from behind, comforting him with words - like a guardian angel, who just as quietly disappears again. This is one of the pivotal moments in the evolving development of the young Alejandro and, as the first half of the film is seen through his eyes, there will be more.
Unsurprisingly for a Jodorowsky film, there is a chorus of legless and armless men. In this case they are wounded soldiers wearing camoflage and generally being a nuisance as they are usually drunk and disorderly. Jaime is distainful of them and cruelly kicks them, Yet, in a hauntingly strange scene, when a ragged band of plague victims come down from the mountain into the town - he feels compassion for them. The whole town closes its doors to them and soldiers cordon them off and refuse to give them water or food. It is Jaime who takes his own donkey cart and goes into their midst with barrels of water. But they go wild and start eating his donkeys and he barely escapes although he has been infected by plague. His cure is an unforgettable tour de force with Sara which has to be seen to be believed.
There so many bizarre and fully-realized episodes that it is difficult to choose the ones to mention. The second half of the film centers on Jaime’s departure from Tocopilla on an ill-conceived quest to assassinate Chili’s military dictator Carlos Ibañez. It is a harrowing odyssey of epic-proportion. The satisfaction of this film is there is redemption for all. And that is really the recurring theme of all of the work of Jodorowsky. There is always a search for redemption. By his own admission he experimented with LSD and all manner of hallucinogenic substances as a seeker of truth, awareness and selfrealization. He has said he is trying to reproduce a drug-free acid trip for the audience. And, in spite of all the horrors he sees in the world, he still remains optimistic that redemption is possible. It is that which makes it possible to watch so many scenes of such terrible beauty and not question the motives.
The three main characters give virtuoso performances. Pamela Flores is an operatic earth mother/goddess with her amble bosom, expressive face and beatific voice. Brontis Jodorowsky (Alejandro’s son) undergoes such a dramatic transformation from the brutal martinet to the ravaged/awakened/redeemed father as communicated by a pair of the most expressive eyes I can recall. Jeremias Herskowitz is a completely engaging and believable hyper-sensitive young boy trying to win the affection of a terrifying father who he also adores. There are also many quirky local characters who are colorful, strange and humorous.
It cannot be overlooked how many Jodorowsky’s there are in the final caredits. (Original music is written by Adan Jodorowsky, Alejandro’s second son). It would seem that his film has really been a family affair. But it is surely not your typical family fare. I think it can best be compared to a crazy quilt of Fellini, Bunuel and Almodovar - all filmed sublimely by cinematographer, Jean-Marie Dreujou. There is much food for thought and many stunning, beautiful images which I will not soon forget.
Review by Belle McIntyre