Review by Rumsey Taylor
Posted on 10 July 2004
Source Red River Films VHS
Features: Directors: Alejandro Jodorowsky
Reviews: The Holy Mountain
Reviews: Santa Sangre
El Topo’s following prologue is the only forced clue in its interpretation:
The mole is an animal that digs tunnels under the ground, searching for the sun. Sometimes his journey brings him to the surface. When he sees the sun, he is blinded.
This “explanation” does little to make sense of the ensuing plight of the film’s namesake: a leather-clad hero vowing mutiny against the Four Masters of the desert.
At a distance the film is a western, borrowing noticeably from the conventions of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns. Despite this similarity, the film abandons the coherence of its parent genre. Moments of convoluted surrealism are in abundance as are Biblical allusions. El Topo has enough offerings to satisfy groups in its diversity, yet, in result, lacks a singular “completeness” that makes it great.
Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky helmed the film, his third following his experiences as an understudy and partner to Marcel Marceau and his debut Fando & Lis — a violent film that caused a riot and eventual banning in a Mexican film festival.
Jodorowsky is a self-described poet, artist, and philosopher. Once known, these qualities become manifested in El Topo, and they are almost too apparent. His obvious conceit accounts, in part at least, for his film’s inability to forward comprehension. It is as if Jodorowsky, armed with an adequate budget, has made a film only for himself. It may be the height of his hubris, though the result is endlessly fascinating, and justifiably, in regard to El Topo’s odd appeal and cult fan base, one of the most enduring Midnight Movies ever made.
Securing criticism for Jodorowsky’s vanity, perhaps, the director cast himself as the film’s lead and his son in the corresponding role. The film opens with the two riding horseback in an empty desert horizon. They stop, El Topo tells his son to bury his first toy and his mother’s picture.“Now,” he announces, “you are a man.” The picture and toy, Jodorowsky has stated, are his sons. This fact underlines the scene with a harrowing reality.
The two ride into a nearby town, witnessing the evidence of a massacre: bodies are strewn about the landscape, blood collects in pools and cows are disemboweled. They find the only survivor, whose yelps of pain hinder his attempt to reveal the identity of the killers.
A mysterious figure, credited simply as “the colonel” is responsible. El Topo castrates him, and, robbed of his sex (or identity), the man commits suicide. Before his death, the colonel cries “I don’t even know who you are?” El Topo responds with deadpan gravity: “I am God.” Apparently impressed with this fighter’s ability and courage, the colonel’s woman, Mara, rides away with El Topo, forcing him to abandon his son.
Mara becomes El Topo’s vice. In the ensuing portion of the film, El Topo, on behalf of Mara’s instigation, hunts the desert’s Four Masters. Each is a gifted individual, incapable of being shot in conventional means: one is blind and bullets pass through him without harm; the second possesses a balance of brute and delicate strength; the third is equipped with a gun that shoots once, and is himself the quickest shot El Topo will encounter. These scenes are the most accomplished part of El Topo.
The final master has only a butterfly net with which he catches and returns bullets. The man claims there is no value to life, that in El Topo’s quest to extinguish the four masters he accomplishes nothing. The master proceeds to shoot himself. His struggle ending in an anticlimax, El Topo is convinced of the man’s words and flees.
The final portion of the film involves El Topo as a sort of resurrected monk some twenty years later (he eschews his leather outfit, gun and facial hair in favor of a bald head and robe). He has been saved by a group of inbred freaks, confined to a cave beside a village. His renewed quest is to save them by tunneling out, hence his name and the film’s title.
El Topo opened in New York in 1970 to massive word-of-mouth publicity. It became a staple midnight movie and developed as devoted as any film cult. El Topo belongs among the films that describe the essence of early Seventies cinema.
On John Lennon’s word, Beatles manager Allen Klein bought the distribution rights to the film (the soundtrack was released on the Apple Records label). Curiously, Klein booked the film for several successful screenings, and has since refused to release the film in any form. Despite its redeeming appeal, El Topo is available only in generation bootlegs or imported laserdiscs (incidentally, the copy of the film reviewed here has been dubbed in English and subtitled in Japanese).
It is evident, watching the film, that Jodorowsky is confident at its helm; most every image, action, and line is excruciatingly obsessed (much of the dialogue is delivered in the form of deliberate aphorisms). El Topo is an accomplished series of images, however, the film contains portions of frustrating incoherence. Perhaps as a nod to the film’s title, several characters engage in the practice of digging holes in the desert sand at random. Occasionally, one procures rocks beneath the surface. It is obvious, given the structure and recurrence of this action, that this means something deeper than its literal portrayal (as does the title). El Topo desires a significance that escapes it.
More dumbfounding are the film’s sex scenes. One involves a woman hugging a penis-shaped rock in the middle of the desert; in another, El Topo eats, slowly, a pear cut into a recognizable part of the female form. In his effort to infuse his film with immense symbolism, Jodorowsky loses the eroticism attached to sex. Innovative? Sure, though the film’s symbolism is so heavy-handed it will surely alienate certain viewers.
Wading through this pool of thick symbolism in an attempt to secure the film’s singular, tying thread is a futile task. El Topo’s every element is exaggeratedly pronounced: the religious allusions, the Western saga, the romance and familial rites. The film is a veritable grab-bag of traits that appeal to different viewers. As a whole, the film is likely to provide faults as well as triumphs — each subjective to the viewer.
Or not. Recognizing El Topo’s multitude of aims is recognizing its triumph. Though it is terminally weird, it contains moments of accomplished innovation. Best summating this claim is the film’s tagline: “What it all means isn’t exactly clear, but you won’t forget it.”