The following article was published in N-SPHERE March 2010 issue.


Jodorowsky’s films were never an easy treat. Flooded with symbols and characters that walked the line between the eerie and the ridiculous, they remained not only outside the mainstream cinema, but some of them outside film, as well.

His first long feature, “Fando Y Lis”, premièred at the Acapulco Film festival in 1968 and resulted in a full-scale riot. Needless to say that the Acapulco episode contributed to the Chilean-born director’s latter notoriety. As for the film itself, well, “Fando Y Lis” may very well be the result of a Fellini-Bunuel meeting down the obscure alleys of AcidTown.

Based on the Fernando Arrabal play with the same name, the film plays more like a map of symbols and deviations rather than like a proper film. While an interesting failure in its own rights, “Fandi Y Lis” gained its share of cheers from cult fans due to its bold imagery and some delicious references, one of them even being Diana Mariscal (Lis) who was modelled to fit Giulietta Masina, Fellini’s wife and muse. The amusing part is that Fellini returned the favour with allusions to “Fando Y Lis”’s imagery in his 1969 “Fellini Satyricon”.

And if “Fando Y Lis” stirred only riots, his subsequent effort, the 1970’s “El Topo” became a cult favourite, spoiled by names such as John Lennon, Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, David Lynch and Bob Dylan. John Lennon even convinced The Beatles’ manager, Allen Klein, to purchase the rights of the film and assure its worldwide distribution.

A significant improvement from his directorial début, “El Topo”, however, remained faithful to the recipe used in “Fando Y Lis”, but this time, there is a readable structure to follow, there are some characters and there is a discernible plot. While still baffling for the average moviegoer, on a closer look one can decipher the film’s mystery by paying close attention to its very beginning.

“El Topo” is also noted as being one of the, if not the first, midnight-movie. For those unfamiliar with the term, some other examples of midnight-movies will very well form an explanation: Pink Flamingos (John Waters), The Night of The Living Dead (George Romero), Suspiria (Dario Argento) and Eraserhead (David Lynch).

Aside from having a discernible plot, “El Topo”’s other advantage was that of using a familiar form – that of a western: a mystical movie in western clothes. However, the film’s goal is not to serve some mystical ideology, instead, Jodorowsky uses the idea of mysticism, rather than pulling some strong references from mystical/”occult” (I avoid this term, since it is overused these days, mystical may seem somewhat awkward in some cases, but I find it more generic/generous) authors. The symbols and references are far more general, and they do not necessarily serve the narrative. They work more on the meta-narrative structure, but since this is not an “El Topo” review, will cover those and the many-men-with-missing-limbs issue on another occasion.

Two years after “El Topo”, Jodorowsky returned with “Holy Mountain”, but the film fared less well than its predecessor. In 1980, Jodorowsky returned with “Tusk”, a film which passed unnoticed and remained, to this day, very hard to find. Nine years later, Jodorowsky helmed “Santa Sangre”, which would be widely regarded as his return to the form. While the film is more accessible than his earlier ones, it also doesn’t feel that suffocated with symbols. Following “Santa Sangre”, was “Rainbow thief” (1990) which didn’t share the same success with its predecessor.

As of this moment, it is unclear whether we’ll have a Jodorowsky project in the near future. Currently, his next feature (“Abel Cain”) is in the stages of pre-production.

Now, let us return to 1989 and “Santa Sangre”. As I mentioned earlier, this film presents a “lighter” Jodorowsky in terms of symbols, but a more robust one in terms of directing.

Mainly, Santa Sangre is a film about possession, in the same way “Psycho” was, but not in the same register. While Psycho was more on the noir-ish side of things and its leading character would surface as a monster in the end, “Santa Sangre” is more mystical and more sympathetic towards its protagonist. The film also displays a considerable number of references to Fellini, Bunuel, silent films, silent horrors and so forth.

There are several things I would like you to notice. As I said before, Jodorowsky’s works are filled with symbols and while Santa Sangre is far behind his previous works from this aspect, it still provides enough cookies to satisfy a cine-scout. For example, Fenix points to Phoenix, Alma is Soul (Alma being Fenix’s childhood friend), Concha means vagina (Concha being Fenix’s mother), while Orgo induces the notions of well, Orgo and Orgy. If you follow the film, you’ll see they make perfect sense and you may discover others yourselves.

Like “El Topo”, there is a recurrent motif. In “El Topo” it was the mole (it may not seem so, but if you take a closer look at the narrative structure, you will easily understand why), in “Santa Sangre” there are the hands/the arms.

Fenix’s mother is a leader of a cult that worships a girl (considered saint) whose arms were cut off by her rapists. One night when Concha is suspended above the circus ring by her hair, she sees Orgo with the Tattooed Lady and demands to be brought back to earth. She surprises them in bed and, enraged, she throws acid on Orgo’s genitals. As a response, Orgo cuts off her arms. When Fenix escapes from the mental institute he follows his mother, moves in with her and becomes her physical slave, by allowing her to use his arms. In the end of the film, we see the police arresting Fenix and when they demand him to put his hands up, he cheerfully repeats “My hands, my hands…”.

Removing one’s hands may lead to removing his ability to retaliate. Owning one’s hands is directing that ability. Fenix is a constant caged bird. He starts as a prisoner in that mental asylum, he continues being a prisoner when he moves in with his mother and ends up a prisoner when he is arrested in the end of the film. But this time, he had confronted his main inner jailer, so the formalities that were to follow represented an easy burden.

There is a constant fellinesque feeling throughout the first part of the film: the circus, the clowns. All of these may represent the magic of childhood. When the elephant dies, the childhood dies as well. The condor that is both a messenger and maybe a totemic animal, given two scenes when Alma touched the condor tattooed on Fenix’s chest and then mimed a bird-flight, and carries a message that he should free himself – a rebirth from ashes if you may.

There are many powerful scenes in the film, scenes that only a director confident in his imagination could create. For example, the scene after Fenix confronts the ghosts of his victims (which is also a powerful scene), is filmed as if he was in a ship about to wreck. The funeral scene in the first half is again quite remarkable and so forth. All in all, if you want to experience something unconventional and yet not impossible to follow, if you want a film that is stripped of boring conventions, this may be your call.

As a conclusion, Jodorowsky’s films refuse to be labelled, they don’t use a standard recipe to create dialogue, characters or stories. They don’t need it, their honesty and openness are enough.

Movie still: Santa Sangre

review by Shade

Full article here.