El Topo

Alejandro Jodorowsky, Mexico, 1970, 125 min.

I had first seen this film years ago on an old bootleg video after seeking it out purely for its underground notoriety. My thoughts on it then (as an impressionable pre-Cinesthete) was that it was bizarre, creative, entertaining, and completely beyond my understanding.

For those of you who don’t know, El Topo (The Mole), tells the story of a man and his travels through the desert. It starts with him and his young son setting out to kill a group of bandits for slaughtering a village. What follows are several bizarre sequences where El Topo is charged with slaying the four masters of the desert in order to gain a woman’s love.

After completing this task by compromising his own values, he is betrayed and left for dead by the woman and a mysterious female gunslinger who previously joined them. As if things weren’t already strange enough, the film takes a turn when El Topo is rescued by a group of deformed cave-dwellers and brought underground. There, after sleeping for years, he awakens to find he is now considered a god by these people, and he may also be the only way for them to escape their underground prison.

To do this he sets out into the neighboring town with young dwarf woman. Their aim is to try to raise enough money to dig a tunnel through the mountain so that their people can escape. What they finds in the town is a den of sin and excess, where everyone is a member of a seemingly familiar religious cult. From here the film builds nicely to a climax that, after two hours of cinematic excess, does not disappoint.

But was all of this worthwhile, or was it just an exercise in bizarre imagery for the sake of shock value? It is shocking, no doubt, but upon closer inspection you can find layers upon layers of deeper imagery. That doesn’t mean you understand it any more. Watching it again, and doing some reading, I came to realize that Jodorowsky wasn’t in it to shock. Everything in that film has a deeper meaning to him, and it all gathers around the description he gave of this film:  “A man goes on a journey to find spiritual enlightenment.”

There are some wonderful reading materials about this film. Specifically over at Subterranean Cinema there is a great scene by scene description of the film by Jodorowsky himself.

Here are some choice bits:

She drags herself along the sand dunes. She falls facedown on the sand, digs in the sand and finds thousands and thousands of turtle eggs. In front of her is a rock shaped like a phallus. This stone is an exact replica of my own phallus: thick, not very long, but with a voluminous head. That’s how I am. That’s how the rock is. That’s El Topo’s sex. Mara taps the rock with a stone, and a stream of water spouts forth — like urine, like a stream of semen. She immerses her face in the miraculous water.

El Topo stands in a circular lagoon in the middle of the oasis. He’s playing with the stone figurine. He floats it on a splinter of wood and places a small live lizard on its back. Here I express the relationship that exists between the stone sculpture buried so many years in the depths of the desert and the small lizard living so many years on the surface of the desert. Joining the lizard with the stone sculpture symbolizes the union of depth and surface.

The possessions of the Masters have been diminishing. The First Master lived in a tall tower, the Second Master in a wagon, the Third Master in a lean-to, The Fourth Master has only a pole in the desert and a sheet covering his body. The First Master had two revolvers, the Second Master one revolver that fired several shots. The Third Master one revolver that fired a single shot. The Fourth Master has no revolver, only a butterfly net. The First Master had a large oasis, the Second Master a small stream, the Third Master an oval pool. The Fourth Master has only sand in the desert.

Insane? Genius? Exploitative? It’s hard to decide at times, but that is all part of the fun. The above website contains dozens more interesting quotes. It is hard to navigate through, but well worth the trip.

Actually, that last sentence is a very good way to describe El Topo. Shocking, yes, but Jodorowsky did not make it to shock. He had his own spiritual and personal reasons behind the film. It’s true that most people don’t connect with those reasons, but those who do will find a positively fantastic viewing experience. And for those who don’t, well, it’s still a movie unlike any other.

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