Vague Visages Is FilmStruck: Alejandro Jodorowsky’s ‘El Topo’

El Topo Movie Essay - 1970 Alejandro Jodorowsky Film

If ever there was filmmaker for whom the term “incomparable” could scarcely do justice, it is Alejandro Jodorowsky. Cultivating a sundry artistic career, with inspired steps taken along the paths of pantomime, puppetry, poetry, theater and all other manner of avant-garde endeavor, the Chilean-born auteur made his first film in 1957, the French short La cravate. That was followed by Fando and Lis, Jodorowsky’s black and white feature debut, shot in Mexico and released 11 years later. Both early efforts are clearly and contentedly of a more experimental nature, with no hint of orthodox intentions otherwise. El Topo, from 1970, another Mexican production, is different. Its title translated as “The Mole,” this quasi-Western conforms to Jodorowsky’s filmic penchant for something “beyond surrealism,” allowing for his customary blend of existential refrains and emblematic imagery. But it also advances from what appears to be a specific, standard station, a film genre as tried and true as any. He integrates throughout the picture a number of the form’s familiar tropes, partly, he says, as a parodic exercise, though it just as frequently feels like an expressive reinforcement, locating El Topo in reasonably accustomed territory only to continually usurp corresponding expectations. In any case — in all cases and like much else when it comes to Jodorowsky, the man and his movies — the surface is always deceptive.

As undeniably unique as Jodorowsky may be, his films draw several inevitable comparisons. There are early shades of Luis Buñuel and there is certainly a touch of Federico Fellini, especially lately, in Jodorowsky’s more overtly autobiographical output; there are arresting visual inventions akin to his Serbian contemporary Dušan Makavejev, and, most obviously in the case of El Topo, there is the resounding influence of Sergio Leone. Still, these affinities are largely superficial, a recognition of similar stylistic traits and narratives (such as these unfettered narratives are, anyway), but they seldom validate Jodorowsky’s cryptic context. So, while El Topo opens with a black-clad man on horseback, riding through a parched desert setting, its Western inferences are summarily undermined, not just by the ensuing actions of its flute-playing, umbrella-toting protagonist, El Topo (Jodorowsky), but by the nude child riding with this stoic lead. 

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El Topo Movie Essay - 1970 Alejandro Jodorowsky Film

The boy, seven-year-old Hijo, played by Jodorowsky’s own seven-year-old son, Brontis, is told to bury and leave behind a prized stuffed animal and a photo of his mother (a portrait of Brontis’ actual mother and the boy’s favored toy). Here, among the recurrent Jodorowsky themes, in El Topo and elsewhere, there is the subject of transition, of aging, growth and the passage of time and memory. Ceremoniously repressed, these valued possessions are but the start of an evolutionary process impacting both El Topo and his young son, a maturation advanced when the two ride into an isolated town, a village encircled by sinuous sand dunes and devastated by recent butchery. As foretold by this pitiless panorama, the land of El Topo is a land of violence, a land of blood-spattered barns and massacred corpses, their seeping essence feeding pools of crimson water. With bodies solemnly hung and impaled without mercy, the gruesome scene is haunting and hypnotic, sensations rarely reduced as the duration of the film plays out. And as a nightmarish climax to the sequence, El Topo comes upon a man in the throes of death. To put him out of his misery, to acknowledge, accept, and participate in the cruel ways of the world, little Hijo must pull the trigger. The resulting perception of El Topo as an unyielding and devoted protector/mentor makes his subsequent action all the more astounding. After tracking down a dastardly Colonel (David Silva), the man responsible for the bloodshed, and after executing he and his posse, El Topo appropriates the official’s sex slave (Mara Lorenzio), christens her Mara, and abandons Hijo, trotting away with the strange new women and leaving the boy in the care of itinerant priests. “Destroy me,” El Topo commands his son. “Depend on no one.”

To this point, wedded with an obvious undercurrent of oddness, El Topo’s Western elements appear relatively stable. El Topo’s appearance as a stalwart gunslinger seems consistent as he kicks down doors and fires in the same dramatic motion, or later as he engages in a stately-paced shootout, commenced with the sound of air as it squeals from a balloon. But these hints of generic custom progressively dissipate, even as El Topo and Mara embark on an excursion that could easily be applied to more conventional Western fare: the seeking out of four skilled combatants, referred to as “masters,” in an effort to prove El Topo’s own proficiency. Superseding this ostensible goal, which nevertheless remains a driving, if rather enigmatic force in El Topo’s life (for at least the first two-thirds of the film), are an assortment of metaphoric endeavors and manifold allusions. Broken into chapters (because, Jodorowsky says, he wasn’t allowed to make a feature in Mexico and so directed what he could declare as four assembled shorts), El Topo is demarcated by titles reading “Genesis,” “Prophets,” “Psalms” and “Apocalypse,” all of which attest to the film’s congregation of religious and spiritual substance. Replete with references to Moses, to God-like omnipotence, to an idyllic, Eden-esque oasis and to El Topo’s miraculous capacity — turning bitter water sweet — Jodorowsky’s film is a potpourri of consecrated iconography and symbolism, providing El Topo a breadth of sacred resonance and no doubt augmenting its potential for provocation and interpretation. 

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El Topo Movie Essay - 1970 Alejandro Jodorowsky Film

Furthermore, and not unrelated, El Topo is also built from a succession of distinct yet overlapping dichotomies: birth and death, fate and free will, power and subservience, man and beast (the General’s minions pant like eager dogs while the proliferation of actual animal life is usually informed by human presence, like bejeweled lizards and slaughtered chickens, or spontaneously expiring rabbits and an inharmonious pet lion). Supplanting its storyline as much as it enhances it, El Topo’s transgressive fantasy world is similarly infused by the unification of sex and violence, evinced in the desires and distortions of human carnality. Seen early on is one bandit’s orgiastic shoe fetish, for example, as he snatches up footwear he then greedily inserts into his gaping mouth; another lascivious outlaw constructs a cocoa bean outline of a naked woman, which he also ravenously devours. Or, there is the physicality that fluctuates from the sensual to the grotesque, every so often resting somewhere in between, in an intense, corporeal fusion: using blood for lipstick, the liquescent actions of eating and drinking, and the image of penetrating fingers as they are thrust through an opened piece of moistened fruit (about as subtle as a phallic-shaped rock suggestively spouting water, which El Topo also has). Linked to this explicit focus on physical animation are periodic mutilations, effusive bloodletting, transformative modifications and junctures of gender paradigms, from androgynous eccentrics to women with male voices and men with female voices (one woman is dubbed by the sound of chirping birds), from shifts in sexual-genre convention, like homosexual bandits and lawmen, to El Topo’s own feminine alter ego, a devious woman in black played by Paula Romo. And in one of Jodorowsky’s persistently peculiar predilections, body parts (or a lack of) are routinely singled out, typically and vividly realized in the presence of men and women with physical maladies and deformities, characters who personify an uncanny component of the director’s cosmology.

Although Jodorowsky refers these disabled individuals as “monsters” — inelegantly termed, to be sure, but stated with compassion and veneration — it is a female dwarf, Mujercita, played with great emotional credence by Jacqueline Luis, who ultimately renews El Topo’s ardor and accompanies him on the final leg of his empirical journey. Following the inventory of assorted challenges, El Topo’s mystical mystery tour goes erratically off the rails when El Topo is nearly killed and is rescued by a cave-dwelling tribe of outcasts with incest-induced abnormalities. Absconding with Mujercita to what he believes to be a more progressive town, El Topo finds that even this seemingly settled community is no less hostile and barbaric than the wilderness from which he had earlier emerged. Assuming the persona of a clown-savior, El Topo attempts to entertain and enlighten the townsfolk, but he finds only debauchery, humiliation and further vehemence. He also finds Hijo, now a young monk, who literally tears down the town’s pious futility and confronts his father with vengeance on his mind. In its oddly roundabout way, it would appear El Topo has returned to recognizably Western domain. 

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All involved are united by Jodorowsky’s conjoined faculty for absurdity and sadism, for a depiction of over-the-top wickedness and solemn despair. Few scenes in his entire filmography are as disturbing as when Mara, in an act of savage barbarity, shoots a legless man and his armless companion, manically laughing all the while, a ruthless act of agony and ecstasy, impressions regularly entwined in Jodorowsky’s work. Equalizing some of the film’s occasionally queasy content is the lurid cinematography by Raphael Corkidi, which enriches Jodorowsky’s arrangements of vibrant, graphic imagery. Padding its disjointed storyline, El Topo is infused with inconsistent cutaways and incongruous inserts, a meticulous system where the significance of said elements aren’t always immediately (or ever) evident. Textured illustrations of carnage, convincingly achieved by practical means (chunks of red watermelon as emitting gore), and bodies covered in mounds of glistening, granulated sand, are visceral photographic complements to Jodorowsky’s equally exhaustive sound design, a medley of miscellaneous aural cues and curiously effective sound effects, where even the act of dubbing can be, according to Jodorowsky, an “artistic technique.”

Jodorowsky, who also composed El Topo’s score, incorporates a wide range of divine, psychological and philosophical stimulus, vaguely enumerating mythology, Confucianism, magic, Zen Buddhism, Freudian and Jungian proclamations, and common Christian motifs like betrayal, retribution and the resurrection. In what becomes a New Age pursuit of transcendent and material betterment, Jodorowsky riddles his fable with psychedelic words of wisdom and a sincere pseudo-profundity. And it worked. Released in late 1970, El Topo struck a chord with the counterculture crowds attending its marijuana suffused screenings. Celebrities and artists were captivated by the film; Andy Warhol was a fan, Peter Gabriel claimed El Topo’s influence on the Genesis concept album The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, and John Lennon and Yoko Ono were instrumental in the promotion of the picture. Amazingly, the film was even selected as the Mexican entry for the Academy Award’s Best Foreign Language Film (it was not, incidentally, accepted as a nominee). Jodorowsky would later advocate a proposed sequel, originally called “The Sons Of El Topo,” later changed to “Abel/Cain,” but that never came to fruition (which is probably just as well). El Topo is from another time, and while what was done then still resonates and fascinates, the constructive controversy of an inexplicable cult-film like this, however creative and astonishing it is, is something less assured — certainly less bankable — in today’s cinematic climate. 

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As it is, El Topo’s twisted connotations maintain an enduring, mind-bending eminence, and its aesthetic allure persists because of the unrestrained possibility inherent in all that Jodorowsky does. His films reverberate with the utmost confidence, a fortified belief in what he does, and a commitment to his overriding passions and the potency of his vision. A hallucinatory spin on the Spaghetti Western, fronted by a hero Jodorowsky has likened to a Rabbi, Zorro and Elvis Presley, El Topo has been called by its director both a “fairy tale” and a “dream.” It is surely an entrancing experience, perhaps mere exploitation, perhaps something more profound. Perhaps both. It is a film that welcomes analysis but offers no sure solution, and its layers of meaning are often only discernable after Jodorowsky calls attention to them, though even then, the evidence is debatable. “I am someone who plays games,” he once declared, a statement as ambiguous and illuminating as most of his self-reflective musings. But this is Alejandro Jodorowsky’s world, after all, and it’s a world we’re only too lucky to visit.

Jeremy Carr (@jeremyrcarr) teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI’s Notebook, Cinema Retro, Movie Mezzanine, Cut Print Film and Fandor’s Keyframe.