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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
I've Looked Over and Seen the Promised Land
by Donald Levit

Legendary and long difficult to come by but re-released four months ago, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s polarizing El Topo became in 1971 one of the earliest cult Midnight Movies. His The Holy Mountain/La montaña sagrada is shortly to be re-released in 35 mm, too, and the two features are included with others in a May 1 special collector’s remastered DVD boxed set.

As polymorphous as his fields of endeavor, Jodorowsky was born in 1929 or ’30, in the Chilean beach resort once Bolivian seaport of Iquique or else 120 miles further south in ugly Tocopilla, to Russian-Polish Jews who ran a dry goods store or were circus performers. Mime, puppeteer and big top clown while a university student, he studied under and collaborated with Marcel Marceau in Paris, where he made a now lost film and was involved in mainstream as well as avant-garde theater, and went to Mexico to direct his first feature and then the Fellini-esque biblical allegorical Western El Topo. Before he returned permanently to France to begin work on the original, expensive abortive cinema version of Dune and continue involvement in graphic novels and Tarot, The Holy Mountain was filmed south of the border in time to shock Cannes in 1973.

Like most of his films, featuring the director, subsequently divorced wife Valerie and three of their four sons, dealing with spiritual rebirth set against an indicted Western materialism, and dependent on jarring juxtaposition, The Holy Mountain either appalls with graphic anti-religious symbolism and bloody imagery, or else appeals for its style and single-minded focus. There can hardly be a middle ground.

The film does not rely on special effects. Indeed, factories, towers and rainbow interiors openly flaunt their cinderblock, cardboard, paint or pre-existing mosaic-tile construction. Rather, it is the cripples, dwarfs and fatties, the faceless military extras, the costumed participants, who expound or enact tired holistic ideas. An unsubtle Buñuel worked over afterwards by an equally unsubtle surrealist painter, if you will, in that movement’s “primacy of dreams” but now with a rather obnoxious one-to-one symbolism that is vocally explained more than simply visualized.

Ringed by touristic commercialism and at last “debunked” as unnecessary outward goal of the inward pilgrimage to being born to one’s true spirit, Lotus Island’s Holy Mountain, for example, is a hoary metaphor from Moses to Martin Luther King, Jr., from St. John of the Cross to John Bunyan to Thomas Merton. Near its top family love is recommended, but farther, on its very summit, the old false gods are hollow and lifeless and the search for soul’s immortality is a film illusion leaving only “true life [which] awaits us.”

This truth is revealed by the quasi-Zen Virgil-guide Alchemist-of-many-guises (Jodorowsky, also credited for set conception and design, costumes, paintings and sculptures), who has conducted nine Franciscan-cowled seekers to this spot or, better, this conjunction of time, space and self. Before embarking on this journey to enlightenment, however, they must be taught to slough the specious dross of this world.

First to go is the Church. Accompanied by an illusory limbless companion, the central simian loinclothed Christ-figure Thief (Horacio Salinas) is stoned then adored by naked boys, goes through the harrowing hell of a history of conquest in a Toad and Chameleon Circus and a passion of Holy Week travesty in the process of which he picks up a love-struck disciple (Ana de Sade) in one of twelve temple prostitutes, hand-in-hand with her Cheetah the chimp companion.

High in a windowless red breezeblock tower, the Thief will be bested at martial arts by the Alchemist, who transmutes that disciple’s excrement into gold as illustration that “you can turn yourself into gold.” Before becoming a novice himself, the new seeker, and the audience, is regaled directly by assorted zodiacal arms dealers, cosmetics entrepreneurs and sex-toy magnates, manufacturers of art, conditioners of children into soldiers, military police chiefs, government economists, and architects (Juan Ferrara, Adriana Page, Burt Kleiner, Valerie Jodorowsky, Nicky Nichols, Richard Rutowsky, Luis Lomeli), all of whom decide to leave such materialistic pursuits and burn their profits to join the Thief and Prostitute in accepting the Alchemist as leader in their quest.

These sketches of seven deadly business-hand-in-glove-with-politics sins grow repetitious and, like much of the rest, too obvious by half. But there is no denying that, like much of that rest, they are also imaginative and sometimes funny. Not the unsubtle what he is saying, but the individualized how, is Jodorowsky’s strength, though many viewers will find the blasphemous Swiftian scatology offensive. Dismissing such timid souls as “limited,” the egotistical director should be just fine with that. After all, he was voted the Jack Smith Lifetime Achievement Award at the Chicago Underground Film Festival 2000. 

(Released by ABKCO Films; not rated by MPAA.)

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