El Topo (1970)
By: Mr Intolerance on December 5, 2007  |  Comments  |  Bookmark and Share
DVD
Siren Visual (Australia). Region 4, PAL. 4:3. Spanish DD 5.1, Spanish DD 2.0. English DD 2.0. English Subtitles. 119 minutes
The Movie
Credits
Director: Alejandro Jodorowsky
Starring: Alejandro Jodorowsky, Brontis Jodorowsky, Mara Lorenzio, David Silva, Paula Romo
Writer: Alejandro Jodorowsky
Country: Spain
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A psychedelic western would be the cheapskate no-brainer shorthand for describing this film, but even though I am no fan of El Topo (it means "The Mole"), it would be doing this (somewhat mystifying as to why) "classic" of underground cinema a great disservice. I must say, I was quite surprised to see Allen Klein's name attached to this film – as the bastard responsible for raping the Rolling Stones out of wads of cash in the 60s and 70s, I'm quite surprised he'd tie his name to anything so uncommercial.

And uncommercial it is, in terms of many aspects. It's violent, certainly – surprisingly so given its late 60s/early 70s context: I kept having flashbacks to early 70s spaghetti westerns and chambara films (think Hanzo the Razor and Lone Wolf and Cub) in terms of the buckets of fire-engine red fake blood geysering about the place. And weird? Well, when you get twenty minutes in and there's bandidos dancing with monks – do I need to draw you a picture? And there is the usual European surrealist nonsense with dwarves and amputees and cruelty to animals, too. It might have been revolutionary back in the day, but it's all so boring, heavy-handed and trite today. And did I mention it was arch and pretentious?

At the outset, El Topo (director Jodorowsky) is a violent, black-clad gunfighter, who in the first half of this film is tooling around the desert with his naked 7 year old son – I'm assuming the symbolism of the name would be that he is dwelling in darkness, working his way towards the light (spiritual enlightenment, I'm guessing – and seeing as how it's practically laid on with a fucking trowel, I'd say I'm right – the imagery is by turns Catholic, Buddhist and Illuminati, at various points). The son gets put into a monastery, and when we see him again, he's become a symbol of Catholic corruption, and a church which couldn't care less about its congregation. This is part of my problem with this film – there are no real proper characters and everything is a reference to something else. I have no problem with symbolism per se, and with other reviews I've written for this site, I do look under the surface myself – but the films work on a surface level too as stories. And you could give a fuck about the characters; you don't care about El Topo, because he isn't a person. At best he's an idea – aspiration, a genuine need for faith or completion in a modern world where everything is tainted; at worst he's a visual representation of a stereotype – the Everyman searching for his faith but compromising himself on the way because of the methods used to attain it. It's a character type as old as the "hooker with the heart of gold" or "the revenger who corrupts himself in achieving justice", the "doomed lovers" etc, etc, etc.

Anyway, El Topo is convinced by this chick Mara (he names her based on the bitterness of some water they drink – so yet another cliché gets hauled out and dusted off – love is in actuality bitter, and not the sweetness we would expect; she's also named for the biblical Naomi, who wishes to be known as Mara – bitter, in Hebrew – as god has treated her bitterly through the deaths of her husband and suns) that he must defeat the 4 best gunslingers in their land, which he does, albeit by luck or ingenuity – well, cheating, actually. The desert I guess is meant to be our "modern spiritual wasteland", I assume, and El Topo's methods of winning, representative of the way we fuck each other over on a daily basis – underhanded and lacking integrity – a point which starts to disturb El Topo. I see no point in masking my scorn and derision any more.

In the second half of the film (after being betrayed and abandoned by Mara – who leaves him for another woman – and rescued by yet more 'malformed men', if I can quote from the classics), El Topo undergoes a rather radical transformation, shaving his head, donning pale robes and looking generally the stereotype of the Buddhist monk – basically becoming physically the stereotypical representation of the peace-loving ascetic religious figure – I'm assuming that the menacing black he wore to begin with is meant to relate to the black of the Catholic clergy, and that possibly (and I may be going a little too far with this analogy), his murder of the other gunfighters representative of the Catholic church's brutal suppression of other religions and other gods – the underhanded enforcing of dogma. Or maybe I'm just talking out of my arse. Jodorowsky did do something similar in The Holy Mountain, with the battle between the lizards and the frogs being analogous to the conquistadores "colonising" Mexico by slaying the Aztecs.

Anyway, El Topo goes through a bunch more symbolic, motif-heavy encounters (I don't want to spoil it for you, and anyway, I'm boring myself with this), self-immolates himself as Buddhist monks were doing protesting Vietnam War at the time – I mean, hey, why not – our hero's already suffered the wounds of Christ, symbolically, of course – might as well align yourself with as many different faith systems as possible; one of them's eventually got to be right, right? But then again, he's also buried a rival under a mound of dead bunnies, so what the hell do I know?

So there's also a rather Catholic mysticism (not surprising given the director's nationality) – W.B. Yeats has a lot to answer for…; in the second half this is blended with Eastern spirituality (Buddhism, I think given El Topo's clothing, rather radical haircut, and the intimations of reincarnation at the end of the film) at work in El Topo, which to a firmly committed atheist such as myself becomes quickly tiresome, then actually boring – I don't need to see the "quest for enlightenment" thing being played out in front of me with all that predictable religious imagery; dull in the extreme. And especially the (at the time) trendy counterculture interest in things Eastern – you'd think people would have learnt from The Beatles' rather public disaffection with, and growing distance from, the whole thing.

Speaking of which, apparently John Lennon and Yoko Ono championed this film upon its release. As two of the most boring, pretentious cunts of the late 60s and early 70s, that doesn't surprise me. I'm no anti-intellectual, but nine times out of ten, arthouse=shithouse. El Topo might have the approbation of the arty crowd, but that just cements in my mind that they are just a bunch of wankers.

I wanted to like this, I really did. Jodorowsky's Santa Sangre is one of my very favourite films and shows a successful melding of surrealism and story (and was the weirdest movie I've ever been on a date to). In terms of film history El Topo is definitely an important film – that I won't deny. But it's boring, reaches a sort of satisfactory climax about half-way through before lumbering and lurching to the end, having already made its point and moreso, never achieves more than a ponderous pace and is pretty much the ultimate triumph of style over substance. Two hours of navel-gazing metaphysical twaddle does not a satisfying viewing experience make.
Video
Absolutely crystal – a beautiful transfer, presented in its original 4:3 aspect ratio.
Audio
Spanish DD 5.1 and stereo options are provided along with an English 2.0 track, and all are pretty good for their era.
Extra Features
An audio commentary I didn't much care for (Jodorowsky banging on about the film), the original theatrical trailer, a recent on-camera interview with Jodorowsky, a photo gallery and script excerpts and restoration credits – hardly what I'd call an all-inclusive cornucopia of wonders for such a generally highly regarded film.
The Verdict
Not being an acid-taking person, or possessing any kind of spirituality at all, this film was a bit lost on me, to put it mildly. I don't mind surrealism, but tell me a story is all I ask. A series of random images of midgets and amputees simply doesn't interest or confront me, which I think it was trying to do, in possibly the most prurient and exploitative way since Tod Browning's Freaks. Not interested in a film that is effectively a bullshit montage of violence and pseudo-mystical imagery, either. Jodorowsky made much better films than this (check out Santa Sangre to see what I mean), El Topo was merely two hours of annoyance.
Movie Score
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