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El Topo (1970)
Writer and director: Alejandro Jodorowsky
review by Steve Aylett
Feeling like a spaghetti western crossed with Peter Brook's Meetings With Remarkable Men, El Topo comes with a lot of mythical baggage, both within the film and around its release history. The story goes that John Lennon saved the movie from obscurity by raving about it and setting up special screenings, thus starting the whole cult midnight movie thing. Since 1970 it's been talked about as a film full of symbolism and meaning, and now that it's finally crawled on to DVD, lo and behold it is.
A prologue states: "The mole digs under the earth looking for the sun. Sometimes, he gets to the surface. When he sees the sun, he is blinded."
El Topo ('The Mole'), played by the film's director Alejandro Jodorowsky, rides out of the desert with his young son, whom he is raising to survive in a harsh world. The gunslinger methodically hunts down a general who has been slaughtering villagers. El Topo claims, "I am god" as he administers his notion of justice. But though he can perform a sort of violent sorcery (shooting a desert rock and having it spring water), as the film progresses we find that El Topo is actually seeking god in some form. He abandons his child at a monastery and rides off with a woman, Mara (played by Mara Lorenzio), who encourages him to prove himself by facing off against four legendary gun masters.
The film enters its most interesting and visually inventive portion as El Topo meets these strange gurus. His cool is already becoming flat and it's good to see some curiosity and surprise enter his eyes for the first time. "When you think you are giving, you are really taking away," says the second master as El Topo's idea of himself as dispenser of justice starts very slowly to dissolve. Mara urges him to cheat during the duels and he does, defeating the first three gunmen. The third, seeing that El Topo is based in the mind and that he hates himself, suggests that he swap his mind and his heart around. The fourth master, an old codger who catches El Topo's bullets in a butterfly net, has no gun and El Topo can't fight him - he can't even take his adversary's life, as the old man says he doesn't care about that, and kills himself. "You lose."
In the process of learning from the gunmen El Topo has grown beyond Mara's concerns and endures a white noise of religious anguish. He is not god and his avenging acts have not meant what he thought they had. He finds that the dead gurus have become transubstantiated into strange symbolic arrangements. Mara shoots El Topo and rides off with a tagalong lesbian gunslinger. The unconscious El Topo, who has sprouted stigmata, is taken in by a group of midgets and paraplegics who live as exiles in a cave.
This is the first half of the movie, and you can see why early-1970s' audiences went berserk interpreting the thing. The meanings have been put there specifically to be found however, and they are placed with quite a bit of skill. Writer/ director/ actor Alejandro Jodorowsky acquits himself well as a classic pistolero. He's not as handsome as Clint Eastwood or as pretty as Terence Hill, but he wears his tailor-made gun-slinging clobber better than either of them, striding around like a balletic robot. He's also more willing to make a fool of himself to make a point.
El Topo's first half contains the best camerawork of the movie, with the painterly-framed desert, sky and sparse structures attaining a rarefied intensity as our hero moves through them. There's a bit of dodgy 1960s' cinema lovemaking reminiscent of the desert lovers in Zabriskie Point, and why anyone would be into the vindictive and boring Mara is beyond me, but El Topo moves beyond her callow games via the amazing dyke gunslinger played by Paula Romo into real love with Jacqueline Luis' character in the second half.
The second half is like a western-flavoured Brother Sun, Sister Moon. El Topo awakens from his meditative fugue state years later to find he is being worshipped by the cave exiles as a living god image. He learns that the maimed multitudes are the rejected offspring of a nearby town, and that most of them cannot climb out of the cave. Shaving off his hair and now looking utterly transformed, he vows to dig them a tunnel out of the caverns.
El Topo only languished during its scenes of vaudevillian villainy - Jodorowsky's bad guys are always camply grotesque, for some reason - and this is worse in the second half as we are presented with an entire townful of moral hypocrites. It's a cheapened morass, threatening to submerge the whole tone of the movie under crappy camp. Just as the camerawork is less striking in the second half, the symbolism of the movie seems briefly in danger of falling out of focus. But events occur to draw El Topo further along on his journey. He falls in love with the dwarf played by Jacqueline Luis, and he meets his now adult son. In the town whose church has replaced the cross with the symbol of the eye in the pyramid, El Topo's son is the one true-believing priest, a brooding misfit. Upon meeting the transformed El Topo he swears vengeance upon him for his abandonment, and becomes a black-clad gunslinger as his father used to be.
Finally, El Topo is actually digging like a mole and, releasing the rejects into the town, is blinded with fury at what happens to them. The dumb cruelty he encounters at the beginning of his 'spiritual journey' he also encounters at the end. Having swapped his head and heart, is he reacting from the heart this time around? Your reaction to El Topo's final act may parallel your reaction to Grace's at the end of Dogville (2003), a film that thematically resembles the second half of this movie. The roiling honeycomb on El Topo's grave, like that on the grave of the first duelling master, seems to symbolise a thick fertility of experience, of having tasted levels of consciousness from bottom to top, all equally valid because all exist.
Though El Topo's influence can be seen in films such as Silent Flute (aka: Circle Of Iron, 1978), and High Plains Drifter (1973), its precisely appointed symbolism is harder to recreate. The symmetry holds up and the movie makes its own sense all the way up and down.
This DVD includes an interview with Jodorowsky in which he talks about how he hated his father and how the world is sick and needs medicine. He claims that, "Terrible things and beautiful things go together." In this movie, at least, they do.
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