Director – Alejandro Jodorowsky
Writer – Alejandro Jodorowsky
Starring – Alejandro Jordowsky
Surrealist cinema is a strange and abstract breed of movie-making. Reminding us, first and foremost, that cinema was originally intended as a strictly visual medium, and that the traditional Hollywood formula was a surprisingly late development along the earlier timeline. Some of the greatest surrealists have gone down in folklore, cementing their place in the mind of more hardened cinephiles as true titans of the cinematic cosmos. I was familiar with the works of the more well-known surrealists, such as Terrence Malick, and, perhaps the most iconic of them all, David Lynch, but Jordowsky was an enigma to me that I was yet to attempt to crack. It was, then, with a great curiosity that I sat down to watch the infamous El Topo. Fortunately, my curiosity was elevated by the bizarre brilliance of the movie, which has to go down as the most insane and atmospheric Western of all time.
Traditionally, at this point in my reviews, I tend to give a plot synopsis. As this is a very nontraditional film, I warrant it justifies an nontraditional review, so I’ll be leaving the synopsis out this time. This is also because the film’s narrative is a key element of engagement with the work, as you the audience are forced to not be mere passive observers, but to actively think continuously as you try to figure out what exactly you are watching. I will say, perhaps arrogantly, that I completely comprehended it the first time around. Ergo, it’s not a mind-bending puzzle of a motion picture, like Lynch’s Eraserhead or Mallick’s Tree of Life; but still it isn’t exactly a classic by-the-numbers story-line, though all the tropes of the Western genre are still here.
El Topo himself is your classic Gunslinger, wandering through the desert wasteland, laying his vengeance upon all thee who oppose him. There are bandits, gunfights, and all the usual Western motifs. However, the film is not, unlike the classic Western, about vengeance. Rather, this is very much a spiritual journey. One man’s quest to find enlightenment and salvation.
What I will say about the narrative, is that it’s split into four major chapters, and two differing story lines. The first half follows El Topo, as he chases down four legendary gunmasters, in order to become the greatest that ever lived. The second half follows an older El Topo, using his spiritual enlightenment to try and save a community of handicapped people.
Both narratives, while deploying Western tropes, actually resemble a classic East-Asian Samurai movie more than anything else. There has always been a very close link between the Samurai and Western genres, as arguably the greatest Spaghetti Western of them all, A Fistful of Dollars, was a remake of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. Jorodowsky clearly notices these parallels more than most, and creates a mesmeric visceral experience than borrows Mis-en-scene from one, and themes from the other. Each of the four masters El Topo reaches teaches him a valuable lesson, each representing a differing East-Asian religion and belief system. It is only by combining all four, and balancing the lessons from each, that El Topo can become the greatest of them all.
Whilst telling you this means my ‘no synopsis’ claim from earlier was somewhat of a cop-out, my reasoning is that a simple description of events would not do the story justice, as this is much more a thematic thinkers piece than it is an entertaining tale. I also thought I’d give those of you less adjusted to arthouse cinema a fighting chance of following the madness.
And mad it certainly is. Everything has a certain macabre beauty to it, as the shots are poetic, effective, yet never technically unnecessary. Jorodowsky doesn’t deploy flashy editing and shot composition as a constant, often deploying oddly by-the-numbers cinematography. Occasionally he does do something particularly innovative with the camera itself, and when he does, it stands out more so because it’s used sparingly. It’s still relatively odd though, as traditionally experimental cinema means unique shots and editing. Here, it’s all deceptively simple, merely framing the madness, as opposed to contributing.
Highlights in the of insanity include; a church passing a gun around in a game of faith-based Russian roulette, designed to test their faith, a naked child riding a horse with El Topo, a dwarf woman riding a horse with El Topo’s son, and the most spiritual and innovative duels ever committed to a Western. The duels are, in fact, unarguably the highlight of the film, mental battles of wills as much as they are actual gunfights.
Jordowsky’s apparent total control over the production, including writing, directing and starring in the piece, would also suggest he is as close as we may get to a true auteur in film. For those unfamiliar with the auteur discussion, it is the idea that no film can have one sole or true ‘author’, or auteur, as there are so many people involved in the production of a motion picture that it would be a discredit to hand one man all the credit. However, whilst Jordowsky is not credited for cinematography or editing, the film is so unbelievably unique that, without being familiar with the rest of his work, I can’t see it coming from any mind but his own.
What we have with El Topo, is the thinking person’s Western. And by ‘thinking person’, I mean the kind of guy/girl who would sit on top of a mountain somewhere, reading a book of Buddhist philosophy. I mean that in no negative way, either, as El Topo is one of the most unique and bizarre experiences anybody could ever hope to lay their eyes upon. A treat, both visually and audibly, for all cinephiles out there,;an experience that transcends the medium of film itself, becoming something much bigger in the process, something that burrows into your subconscious and expands your mind before you know what’s even happened.
Final Rating – 4.6