Tamale Western Django
“Self-described Cecil B. De Mille of the underground,” “humble genius” and auteur of the first midnight-movie sensation, Alejandro Jodorowsky was in New York for onstage conversations following showings of his two cult films, one each on consecutive nights for the Museum of Modern Art and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.
The former featured The Holy Mountain, and at the latter the Chilean Paris-based director-writer-actor-scorer-graphic artist-theater man introduced 1970 El Topo with “my feelings about it change every day, [so] after the film I will have lots of things to say.” Just over two hours later, he decided that “I show it to you as an accident, and you can receive it as you want. Every person has a different reaction. I respect yours.”
The man’s varied career and the several versions of his name and origins are sketched in our review of HM, the 1973 film for which Topo can be considered practice run in which there is a pretense of story framework and surrealistic juxtaposition-contrasts are not as wild. Previously “a big failure at just trying to make a romantic history, the next picture I make, I make a cowboy picture.”
There is indebtedness to friend Fellini’s grotesquerie and to Leone, but this is not homage to or parody of the latter’s spaghetti homage and parody. Religious allegory, the search for meaning or self-fulfillment, child abandonment and patricide, death and rebirth, are thrown into the mix alongside physical deformity, excoriation of Western society, sapphism, and a dose of misogyny. Overlaying this journey to redemption or damnation is some implied, pompously false, matter of faith what with monks, churches, Western and Eastern sacred symbology, encouraged by printed section headings “Genesis,” “Prophets,” “Psalms” and “Apocalypse.” If it needed further comeuppance, that house of cards is undercut in Jodorowsky’s joking admission that, a young director needing union permission for the feature, he chopped it into four shorts “put together with titles.”
In black leather on a black horse, bearded dark-eyed gunslinger Topo (Jodorowsky) rides the desert with his naked son (his real-life son Brontis), whom on his seventh birthday he has bury his childhood in a teddy bear and portrait of his mother. Reaching a hamlet of bloody bodies, cawing carrion crows (a recurring image), and fey young Franciscans, the rider avenges the peasants by castrating the bandido leader Colonel (David Silva) and taking his woman Mara (Mara Lorenzio) with him while leaving the boy behind with the monks.
Always identified by the title-hero’s Spanish sobriquet, the film remarks that the noun means “mole,” an underground creature blinded by the light. “I am God,” he brags, but egged on by this woman who cannot love him until he proves to be the best, he must encounter and vanquish four weird “Masters,” along the way picking up a second female (Paula Romo), also in black.
He appears to give up the ghost but is in fact rescued by a crone who leads a sort of leper colony, the lame and scrofulous, blind and deformed, who worship his comatose now-blond wild-haired self. Awakened after twenty years, shorn and shaved, the now Servant of Man teams with a dwarf woman (Jacqueline Luis) to dig a tunnel through which these outcasts can escape their cavern prison for the nearby decadent racist town that does not want them. Dressed monkishly, he and she enter the burg to clown for dynamite money to complete the freedom tunnel.
In this Magic Realism, nothing is out of bounds or impossible, not even the light-eyed gunslinger in black leather (Robert John) who happens by and will ride off with the future on his black horse.
There exists a report that for decades Jodorowsky projected scripting and shooting a continuation, The Sons of El Topo rebaptized Abelcain on account of legal problems, maybe starring longtime fan Marilyn Manson. Better left undone, because the story of El Topo proves too scattered and weak to bear its digressions and vague symbols that suggest everything, anything and nothing. His screen strength lies in striking visuals, handled more effectively three years later in HM.
(Released by Tartan Films; not rated by MPAA.)