El Topo A
Year Released: 1971
The surrealist filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky created his own midnight cult version of the spaghetti western which, once seen, is not easily forgotten. Some of his macabre and mystical images linger, both fascinating and strange.
An armless man carries a human torso on his back. Together they make a bodyguard to a glazed hermetic gunslinger who cannot be killed by bullets to the chest.
A gunslinger fires shots into the sand, which sprout an oasis. After bathing with his woman, he awakens buried under the dirt.
The fallen wanderer, shot dead with bullets, is dragged away by a parade of freaks, little people, cripples and lepers who live underground in the vast desert.
Werner Herzog once said that we are hungry for images, and if we don't have them we will die. Such is the urgency of Jodorowsky's masterpiece, which delights in showing sights and sounds outside the realm of ordinary film criticism.
While El Topo does follow a plot which is fairly coherent, the fascination with the movie is its stream-of-consciousness approach to the hero's episodic encounters, one more amazing than the next.
A bearded gunfighter dressed entirely in black, the deadly El Topo (Jodorowsky), rides through the desert with his naked young son (played by his own child) slaying Mexican bandits who have raped and pillaged an unsuspecting village. When comforting a survivor, he hands his pistol to the boy and has him put the bloody man out of his misery. "Now you are a man."
We quickly learn that the world of El Topo is not the same territory as Sergio Leone or Clint Eastwood when the banditos are discovered having their way with nude female mannequins, dancing with each other and indulging in revolting shoe fetishes. El Topo proceeds to gun them all down, then castrates their general. Vivid red pools of blood are the only colors in this arid desert.
After this storm of violence, the story takes a turn when El Topo rescues a beautiful woman named Mara (Mara Lorenzio) who goads him to venture into the wasteland and duel the Four Master Gunmen of the Desert. She wants him to be the best, and would hate him if he lost! Casually abandoning his child in the care of a coven of kindly monks, the gunslinger and his woman begin their adventure.
The Magic Journey
As El Topo faces each of the four masters of the desert, he comes face to face with his own empty soul. Each of the confrontations represents a crisis, whether it be in the form of striving for perfection, moral balance or inner peace. These Eastern philosophies seemingly represent Jodorowsky's own ideas.
It all sounds very existential and heady until it is put into the context of a metaphysical gunfight. Remember, Jodorowsky has also created several comic books and graphic novels, and has a taste for the fanciful, theatrical and colorful. Each of the masters is fascinating in his own way, differing in appearance from a Christlike bearded figure wearing only a small tunic to one who resembles a large Russian peasant who twists fragile cords into miniature pyramids.
Each of them exist miles apart from the normal rules of gunfighting. They're fascinating and seemingly unstoppable, either impervious to bullets or too swift for El Topo. Whether or not you're fascinated by the surreal representation of each "idea", all audiences I've seen this film are curious to discover how these giants shall be bested by the ordinary man.
"I don't care how you win! Cheat!" shrieks Mara, who is growing bored with El Topo and turns her gaze toward a new companion they encounter in the desert, a mysterious Woman in Black (Paula Romo). One by one, El Topo attempts to trick them with varying levels of success. How do you beat the unstoppable? Jodorowsky takes it one level deeper by asking the larger question, why would you want to?
The final master is an old, wizened, almost naked man who does not even have a home. He merely resides near a long pole in the sand. Having traded in his pistol for a butterfly net, he refuses to fight El Topo but merely deflects the bullets. "Why do you want to fight me?" the old master laughs. "I have nothing to take!"
"Your life," snarls El Topo. "I could have taken your life."
After making a shattering discovery, El Topo charges out of the desert having accomplished either all or nothing of what he set out to do. I leave that to the viewer to determine, but it is here that the tale takes an abrupt and unexpected shift into territory completely alien to the spaghetti western and into the realm of religious symbolism. El Topo bleeds the Stigmata and, without warning, begins his new adventure.
El Topo means "The Mole", which our hero undoubtedly becomes when he reawakens in a cave populated by life's undesirables an indeterminate amount of time later in his life. These deformed creatures, some man-made and others freaks of nature, treat him as though he were a God. With a freshly shaven head and face, El Topo becomes something of a monk who vows, perhaps in atonement, to go into town and find enough money to dig them a tunnel and return to mankind.
El Topo falls in love with a young woman with malformed arms, showering her with acts of kindness. There are no tests, as there were before. When they venture into the town and attempt to create some small life together, the priest seems to recognize him. The child he abandoned from long ago, now a grown man (Robert John) has returned to haunt him.
This second half of the film is entirely different from the first, seeming to be a religious parable as envisioned by Tod Browning. El Topo, so selfish at the start of the film, now sacrifices almost everything for the good of those who cannot see the sun. Jodorowsky's story slowly builds toward a conclusion of tragedy, pain and bloodshed, since his hero may have hung up his pistols for good but cannot escape his own karma.
Call it what you will -- violent and unsettling, elusive and allegorical. It's a film which must be experienced in order to understand, since the power of El Topo stems from its bizarre metaphoric images and resonant philosophical leanings. It may defy explanation, rationalization or even the viewer's understanding, but it remains vivid and visceral and strange. It's safe to say that you've never truly seen any movie quite like this one.
It would be frustrating to attempt a critical reading of the plot, since his film is more about becoming swept up in the sheer flow of bloodshed and retribution. Each image, while clearly showing the lack of a substantial budget, retains a strong impact because of the startling attention to detail and composition, the resonance of Jodorowsky's world, which feels fully realized through in its evasiveness.
If that sounds like an oxymoron, I suppose that may happen when you're dealing with cinema as a labyrinthine hall of mirrors.
Review published 02.15.2001.
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