El Topo (1970)


(director/writer: Alejandro Jodorowsky; cinematographer: Raphael Corkidi; editors: Alejandro Jodorowsky/Federico Landeros; music: Alejandro Jodorowsky/Nacho Méndez; cast: Alejandro Jodorowsky (El Topo), Mara Lorenzo (Mara), Paula Romo (Woman in Black), Robert John (Brontis as a Man), David Silva (Colonel), Brontis Jodorowsky (Brontis), Hector Martinez (First Master), Juan Jose Gurrola (Second Master), Victor Fosado (Third Master), Augustin Izuna (Fourth Master), Jacqueline Luis (Small Woman); Runtime: 124; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Jodorowsky/Roberto Viskin; Shocking Videos; 1970-Mexico-in Spanish with English subtitles)
“Everything about this mystical trip smacks of narcissism, even the scenes where the filmmaker is lowering himself in acts of self-deprecation.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Alejandro Jodorowsky’s (self-promoting performance artist/provocateur, a Chilean national of Russian-Jewish birth) ego-tripping avant-garde spectacle is a religious allegory framed around a spaghetti western scenario and a plethora of biblical references. Jodorowsky plays a perverse No Name gunfighter who takes to the Mexican desert in his bloody search for enlightenment, or, perhaps, something to say and do while he as filmmaker throws Buñuel-like images and an eclectic assortment of misogynistic visual outrages together in an incoherent manner. It was the first such film, classified as an underground cult film, to draw large crowds to midnight shows, and many who attended were stoned representatives of the counterculture and were enthused (undoubtedly drugged out of their skulls; it was first shown in NYC’s Elgin Theater where the dumpy joint reeked from pot) into accepting the puzzling gory images as offering some pseudotruths about mysticism and western civilization. For those with a strong stomach for the unpleasant and a tolerance for the absurd, this surrealistic venture might do the trick in filling your eyes with enough monstrous eye candy to sate a craving for what was in the air at the time about tuning in and dropping out. During its day, this film was quite the rage. Looking back at it now, it’s hard to see why it got over with such uncritical looks at its glaring faults.

In the film’s first half, Jodorowsky is seeking the revenge of those who massacred and pillaged a village. The bearded man rides in the Mexican desert dressed in black leather (you can see the same hip outfit in Greenwich Village’ Christopher Street) accompanied by his naked 7-year-old son Brontis garbed only in a cowboy hat. Jodorowsky ruthlessly butchers a group of bandits led by The Colonel (he’s disemboweled) who are intimidating those in the territory and takes Mara, the Colonel’s good looking slave-like woman, as his own. She tells him about the Four Masters who have each reached mystical perfection in gunslinging (one of the dudes is even blind), which leads El Topo to try and defeat each of them by any means possible. That’s the Old Testament part, which has some Zen fare mixed in to spice up the search for truth. In this ritualized search for fulfillment, Jodorowsky is all about attaining physical prowess and reinforcing his egotistical wants.

In the film’s second half, Jodorowsky acknowledges his failure (he’s left for dead in the desert), and his journey takes on the New Testament trials of death and rebirth. After his comatose body is found by a banished clan of cave dwellers, he wakes up after years and his mop of hair is now cropped. He seeks atonement for his wasted past life and becomes a clown begging for money, acting in servitude to mankind like a humble Jesus figure as he goes out into the wilderness alone (abandoning his son to a monastery by telling him that this will teach him not to depend on anyone, which is hardly what the Buddhist gurus meant when they taught this lesson). Jodorowsky now identifies with the freaks, the crippled and the disenfranchised. His aim is to dig a tunnel like a mole and find the light at the end of his journey, which will help the mountain clan that saved his life escape their destiny. He must also face his son again, who is now a grown man who needs some explaining by dad over why he was tossed aside like a taco wrapper. At the end of his journey, dressed like a Buddhist monk, Jodorowsky douses himself with gasoline and sets himself on fire. The image is similar to those Buddhist monks in Vietnam doing the same thing to protest the war.

If everything wasn’t so obvious and superficial, the surreal nature of the film would have been more inspiring. None of the symbolism grabs hold of anything special that is reached for intellectually. The mood of the film survives as an immature fantasy, with the shallow content not matching the power of the collective visuals. Everything about this mystical trip smacks of narcissism, even the scenes where the filmmaker is lowering himself in acts of self-deprecation.