Santa Sangre (1989)
By: Mr Intolerance on March 4, 2008  |  Comments  |  Bookmark and Share
Anchor Bay (UK). Region 2, PAL. 1.78:1 (16x9 enhanced). English DD 2.0, English DD 5.1. English (FHI) Subtitles. 117 minutes
The Movie

Director: Alejandro Jodorowsky
Actors: Axel Jodorowsky, Blanca Guerra, Guy Stockwell, Thelma Tixou, Sabrina Denison, Adan Jodorowsky, Jesus Juarez
Screenplay: Claudio Argento, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Roberto Leoni
Country: Mexico/Italy

18 years ago, I was sitting in the Valhalla cinema on a first date (with some poor misguided young woman) watching Santa Sangre (Holy Blood) on its Australian theatrical release, having no idea who Jodorowsky was, his legacy in avant-garde film-making, or of his reputation for the surreal, the weird and in some instances, the truly bizarre. I can quite clearly remember being alternately shocked, disturbed and moved by this obviously deliberately provocative collage of dwarves, freaks (well, it's a film directed by a Spanish surrealist after all – those two elements are givens…), serial killers, masked wrestlers, the mentally ill, transvestites, amputees, a deaf-mute trapeze artist, a dying elephant, drugs, prostitutes, people with Down syndrome, carnies and clowns – and it fascinated me entirely. I had never seen a film like it before (or since it must be said); 18 years of film watching (and heavy drinking) have neither dulled or blurred my experience and the sense of wonder that first viewing gave me.

Anchor Bay UK have released a 2 disc set of this highly under-rated classic which, upon re-watching, has stood the test of time much more strongly than Jodorowsky's accepted "masterpieces" El Topo, and The Holy Mountain – both of which to me are overly-intellectualised metaphysical twaddle with some nice camerawork.

Fenix (Phoenix…being reborn from the ashes…geddit?) is an eight year old sleight of hand magician for his drunken dad Orgo's circus (the wonderfully named Circo Gringo), and the lucky schmuck has found true love with Alma, the equally young deaf-mute trapeze artist – yeah, I know, that old story again… But the course of true love never runs smoothly, and Fenix's religious nut-job of a mother, Concha, enters the story. She's the leader of a cult called Santa Sangre, who idolise a young girl who was raped and had her arms cut off by unknown assailants, seeing her as a saint or martyr – a respect and sympathy for ruined innocence, perhaps? Anyhoo, when the local Catholic monsignor turns up (with his very young male chum…by the way, have you ever heard the Grey Wolves album Catholic Priests Fuck Children? Wonder what brought that to mind…), he's none too impressed with any of this – an interesting attack on Catholic hypocrisy, intolerance and symbolism (a Jodorowsky staple): the monsignor sees the pool of "holy blood" in the middle of the temple as nothing but red paint, but surely the communion wafer and wine (the body and blood of Christ) are nothing but grape juice and a cracker if you don't believe? Isn't that the whole point of the Transubstantiation? He orders the temple demolished, despite Concha's protests, and she heads back to the circus to find her hubby Orgo, drunk and fooling about with the tattooed lady – badness ensues.

I'm not 100% sure, but with the character of Fenix's mother, I get the impression that Jodorowsky might be highlighting the flaws of faith and subjectivity of religion – without belief or simply viewed from the outside, it all seems a bit farcical; a meaningless wall of smoke and mirrors. And also that slavish adherence to dogma can make you into a monster. We also see her as an over-protective, repressive, jealous and fickle authority figure who uses her power over her congregation (Fenix) for ill, and if I have to go into all the wrongs the Catholic church have committed over the last couple of millennia, well, you just haven't been paying attention, have you?

A slight digression: there's an early-ish scene in the film where a baby elephant at the circus dies – there is something grotesquely pathetic about this huge creature wallowing in a pool of its own blood, flowing horribly from its trunk (come on fellas, you know what it's making you think – it's alright to cross your legs in sympathy…), but the following funeral scene – a sort of New Orleans funeral street march – always leaves me feeling gutted. Just like at a child's funeral, it's the size of the coffin that rips your heart out. And the "burial" – well that just seemed needlessly horrible to me.

It's interesting watching this again now, so much of the symbolism I must've ignored on earlier viewings (my VHS copy of this went the way of the dodo years ago) – and even structurally; the story repeats – not literally, but metaphorically. Fenix as a child in the circus – well, that's us in the real world, in a sleazy corrupt society you wouldn't want to touch with a ten foot pole (something Tim Burton tried to address more light-heartedly in Big Fish). And when Fenix as an adult gets out of the asylum he's put into after he sees mum and dad's parting of the ways and his own enforced separation from poor Alma, well, that's us in the macrocosm the microcosm of the circus represented, with all the forms of authority we're meant to trust being found wanting: state, church, family – hell, even gender roles come under fire here.

Like I said, about a third of the way in, the film's plot gets re-booted and Fenix gets out of the nut-hatch. Well, escapes, really. He goes on a visit to the outside world with a bunch of folks with Down syndrome (no, I have no idea why they were in an asylum, either. Having Down syndrome does not mean that you're mental, and this is definitely an asylum; in the opening scene Fenix is naked, up a tree and pretending to be a bird, which is clearly mental behaviour), and sees a tattooed woman, which sparks off a memory of daddy's lover, and the reason for mummy's dismemberment (she loses her arms, like her patron saint, in what would have to be the simplest amputation of all time – has she not bones?!), and then the slasher film fun begins.

The violence is pretty grotesque, in the over-the-top surreal giallo style of a Dario Argento or Lucio Fulci flick (hardly surprising when Claudio Argento was one of the writers). Claret is spilled in abundance, and it's always sexually motivated, and usually sexual in nature – the whole "knife as phallus" thing, foreshadowed early in the film. Freud would have a field day with this film. There's all kinds of weird Oedipal shit going on here, and the fact that Jodorowsky casts his own family members including his son in Santa Sangre is all the more strange. As a momma's boy, the relationship Fenix has with Concha makes that of Norman Bates and his mum in Psycho look like Mother & Son – and the nature of their relationship is more complicated than it at first appears. And if you can see the ending coming, you're a much more astute viewer than I.

Sex is always a bad thing in this film. It's either perverse, abberant (an intended rape, seduction of the married, an infidelity), or just somehow plain wrong – my notes while watching this film for review state: "parts of this make Cronenberg look like Merchant-Ivory". Love, as embodied in Alma's undying fidelity to Fenix (her pure, fragile beauty is somehow reminiscent of Solveig Dommartin's trapeze artist in Wings of Desire – and apparently actress Sabrina Dennison who plays Alma, according to the commentary, was actually a deaf-mute), is pure, it seems, but doing the nasty leads to death, as in all slasher flicks. However Fenix's reciprocated love for Alma has him do some fucked up shit…

Seeing this at age 18 with a fairly solid knowledge of US slashers, none of this raised an eyebrow with me; sexuality = deathmark, it made sense. Close to twenty years later with a broader knowledge of film, it does strike me as an odd morality code – "don't fuck anyone or you die" – violence is okay, sex is bad – but I guess that's part of the idea; these people (whether it's Fenix, Norman Bates, Leatherface, Jason Vorhees, Michael Myers, Freddy Kreuger, et al) are meant to be perverse, so their predilection for violence and inability (for the greater part) to feel any positive emotion makes them weirdo psycho-villains, odd that this very perversion makes them anti-heroes instead (doubt me? Can you buy a wide range of figurines or t-shirts or other such merch of the so-called heroes of these films?). The human race is truly fucked up.

Santa Sangre basically distils all of the usual themes of Jodorowsky's films. Religion (or spirituality, anyway), masculinity, corruption of innocence, redemption, and uses many of the same images, but it does it smarter and better. There's just a more "real" aspect that's lacking in his other films, a coherence and a lack of archness or pretence, which make films like El Topo an impenetrable mess.

The final scene (the last act, I guess), without giving away any spoilers, is by turns violent, touching, liberating, blackly funny and about the best thing Jodorowsky has ever committed to film. The pay-off for watching Santa Sangre, basically, and one of the reasons I truly do love this film. It has heart, which I couldn't say about any of his other works, which to me are just cold and bloodless exercises in intellectual pretention. Most folks would give the prize to El Topo or The Holy Mountain – they've missed the boat. Santa Sangre is Jodorowsky's masterpiece: funny, satirical, witty, vibrant, heart-breaking, poetic, sharp, provocative – the list of superlatives could go on forever. If you only watch one surrealist film in your life, this is IT. One of my top 10, hell, top 5 films of all time, Santa Sangre is the bomb.          
Anchor Bay have given this film the works. It looks great – the rich colour palette adds to the almost otherworldly elements of the visual narrative, and the picture itself is crisp, clear and fine. It looks better than the theatrical print I saw, despite a little speckle and grain.
Your choice of 2.0 surround or 5.1 Dolby Digital – which did strike me as a little pointless…
Extra Features
The proverbial embarrassment of riches. When Anchor Bay go all out, they never fail to impress.

Audio Commentary with Jodorowsky moderated (if that's the right word) by film journalist Alan Jones – a more interesting and cogent commentary than others I've heard Jodorowsky do.

A documentary by Louis Mouchet called "La Constellation Jodorowsky". Personally, I found this tedious, and that it tended to drag a bit, but then I'm not a Jodorowsky fan, I'm a Santa Sangre fan.

A deleted scene with optional commentary that really didn't add anything to the film's experience for me.

There's a booklet with a brief history of the film by David Flint, which made for interesting, but by no means earth-shattering, reading.

Talent biographies – these always seem a bit of a gyp to me.

A short film by Adan Jodorowsky (one of the director's sons in the film), called "Echek".

Stills and poster gallery. I never think much of these – I watch a movie for the moving image – and some of the posters are far superior to the diabolically awful cover Anchor Bay have slapped together here (the only flaw with the whole package), which is a bit of an own goal, in my opinion.

A filmed on-stage interview with the director. I'd heard more than enough of Jodorowsky by this time; it was all getting to be a bit too much…
The Verdict
Nothing short of amazing. This is truly a one-of-a-kind movie, blending the slasher film with an art-house aesthetic. Beautifully shot, yet still with a sense of grit and grime about it, Santa Sangre is much more than the sum of its parts. Intelligent, artistic, violent and blackly funny, this is a must-see for any viewer with a brain. Cheers to Anchor Bay for putting out a completist's wet-dream package of extras, jeers to whoever designed the cover; the illustration on the front looks utterly dreadful, not to mention tacky (I can remember quite clearly the gorgeous Australian cinematic promo poster of the adult Alma in her trapeze outfit and make-up in a cruciform pose – that was a thing of beauty – this is so ugly as to be almost repellent. It certainly has none of the poetry of the film about it), and the screen shots on the back are grainy to the point of being blurred. If anything would put people off buying this film sight unseen, it's this ghastly-beyond-belief, shoddy fucking cover. But the movie itself? An astonishing and totally unique work of art. Hunt the fucker down!
Movie Score
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