Mexico / Italy, 1989
Review by Rumsey Taylor
Posted on 11 July 2004
Source Republic Studios VHS (NC-17 version)
Features: Directors: Alejandro Jodorowsky
Reviews: El Topo
Reviews: The Holy Mountain
Alejandro Jodorowsky’s characterizing films depict an array of unrelated scenarios, but contingent in each film is the ceremonious maturation of a child to a young man. In El Topo, a son is told to bury his first toy and a picture of his mother in the desert sand. Santa Sangre’s depiction of this occasion is more implicit: the young son of circus performers is seen identical to his mother in dress, a pastoral choir robe, and in age comes to favor his father’s sequined coat-and-tails. Each costume denotes an inheritance: as a child he possesses his mother’s stalwart faith, and comes to fulfill his father’s lecherous impulse and garrulity. In both cases this growth is lent a metaphysical aspect, as one of Jodorowsky’s sons occupies each role.
The attainment of maturation is unexpectedly crucial to Santa Sangre. Here it is an issue of sexual identification, and founds the film’s thematic groundwork. Fenix (the son, portrayed at different ages) grows indecisive between his mother’s and father’s traits. A physical confrontation between the parents results in the father’s death and the mother’s crippling. Emotionally, Fenix internalizes the damage and becomes mute for the next several years.
Fenix undergoes unusual therapeutic treatment for his psychological ailment at a hospital where many of the patients have Down Syndrome. One prescribed remedy includes a dose of hallucinogenic drugs and a visit to a red-light district to dance with prostitutes, an opportunity for which each patient is willing. This scenario is obvious exploitation, but under Jodorowsky’s staging it is in service, strangely, to health.
Santa Sangre opens with one of Jodorowsky’s many characterizations of Christ: a naked, bearded man is in a cell (Fenix, in the years after his childhood trauma), accompanied only by a dead tree, a symbolic crucifix. He is eventually freed with the aid of his armless mother.
Temptation, with an integral counterpart in violence, is one of the few consistent aspects in Jodorowsky’s characterizing films. Here it is a distinguishing sin, and is amply punished. Santa Sangre’s title literally denotes martyrdom, violence, and faith. It is the “holy blood” distilled from a female prophet’s excised arms. As noted prior, Fenix’s mother suffers the same symbolic fate of this idol (the crippling is inflicted by her disloyal husband). Her rescue of Fenix is mutually beneficial: Fenix is soothed and regains his speech, his mother uses him to replace her arms. The two, recalling their experience in the circus, perform a variety show, a reunion that also resurrects conflict, and Fenix’s mother will challenge any woman that tempts her son (as her husband) away from her.
Santa Sangre is as familiarly esoteric as Jodorowsky’s other efforts, but it possesses very pronounced influences, including Psycho, Freaks (Tod Browning is Jodorowsky’s cinematic father), The Who’s Tommy, The Invisible Man, and even Fellini’s partiality to the circus. Nonetheless, citing influences for this film only contests its individuality and imagination.